They have been compadres ever since one had hippie hair, the other a ’fro.
Long before they became stalwarts of the Twin Cities stage, actors Stephen Yoakam and James A. Williams were wild-haired Macalester College undergrads getting to know each other over games of pickup basketball. That was during the early and mid-1970s, a time of tectonic strain for the United States from the splintering civil rights movement and Vietnam War. Further tinging the national mood was Watergate, revealing that the country’s profane president was also a crook.
It was during this fraught era that Williams, who is black, would discover that Yoakam, who is white, was his “brother from another mother.” But first, they had to clear the air.
“You have to understand that the only contact I had had with white people — white kids — before then was hostile contact,” said Williams, who grew up in racially polarized St. Louis and was sent to a high school for gifted students in the white part of town. “I was constantly being jumped by roving gangs of white teenagers.”
So when Yoakam — “a blunt southern Indiana boy” — asked Williams to act in a play for his senior project, the response was frank.
“I have to tell you, I don’t like white people,” Williams recalled telling Yoakam.
“I’m not asking you to play one,” Yoakam remembered shooting back. “And that was the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Summoned for ‘Lear’
The story of their friendship, forged through hearing each other out, celebrating their differences and quickening to their shared dreams, contains lessons for a nation grappling with how to respect the culture and dreams of all citizens.
Their bond, and the work they put into forming it, also informs the men’s professional output. After Yoakam staged Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “No Place to Be Somebody” for his senior project, the two men shared many stages. They also built sets, hung lights and did everything they could at Mixed Blood Theatre. (Founder Jack Reuler also appeared in Yoakam’s senior project, as did Pillsbury House Theatre producing artistic director Faye Price.)
Yoakam would branch out, becoming a leading song-and-dance man at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where he played the lead in “The Robber Bridegroom” and acted for a year in “Fiddler on the Roof.” He also commanded the Guthrie stage, playing magisterial characters in dozens of dramas from “King Lear” to his one-man tour de force known as “An Iliad.”
Williams built his reputation performing works by August Wilson at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre and elsewhere, with the playwright even naming a character in “Jitney” for the actor.
But opportunities to play together onstage (if not on the court) became rarer as their careers grew. Two years ago, they were powerhouses in “King Lear” at the Guthrie, where Yoakam played the mad title monarch and Williams his loyal nobleman Gloucester.
“Oh, to come out onstage after all these years,” Yoakam said, “and the first words I say are to a guy I’ve known for 45 years.”
Beast of a play
Now the friends will appear in “Blood Knot,” the 1961 play by South African dramatist Athol Fugard. The drama, opening Friday at Pillsbury House in south Minneapolis, is about brothers Morris and Zachariah, who share a small shack, a bloodline and a dispensation that categorizes them as different. One is black, the other white, in a land where apartheid is the law.
They are perceived as being of different races, which sets the brothers’ divergent destinies.
Williams and Yoakam were reluctant at first to tackle the play, but not because of its themes.
“It’s a lot of words,” Yoakam said.
“You get to an age and you realize you’re closer to the end than to the beginning,” Williams said. “You have only so many rounds left, and you have to choose what you do carefully.”
But when they did a reading of the play last year, they realized they had little choice. The play speaks to them, and to the nation.
“We’re not making statements, but hope to spur” conversation, Yoakam said.
The drama has a rich production history. Fugard wrote it when he was just 28 as a commentary on his native country, which had instituted racial policies mirroring those in the U.S., including containing native people in special places — reservations in the U.S., townships in South Africa — and codifying race in a bewildering variety of ways.
Fugard acted alongside Zakes Mokae in the 1961 premiere, the first show in South Africa with an interracial cast. Fugard and Mokae reprised their roles for the Broadway premiere in 1985.
South Africa and us
While director Marion McClinton planned to stage the Pillsbury House production as part of a long-held dream, he ended up stepping aside to focus on health issues. Director Stephen DiMenna, the longtime Pillsbury House company member who staged a memorable 2008 production of “Blackbird” at the Guthrie (starring Yoakam and Tracey Maloney) , has come aboard. He has been traveling to South Africa for the past eight years to work with theater artists there.
The difference between post-slavery U.S. and post-apartheid South Africa is unimaginable for most Americans, DiMenna observed.
“Imagine if the freed slaves became the government here,” DiMenna said. “That’s what happened in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is their Frederick Douglass.”
“It did happen here, but in the South,” Williams chimed in, referring to the handful of black lawmakers elected during Reconstruction. “But then they went, no, no, no, Jim Crow.”
“Blood Knot” is a vehicle for Yoakam and Williams to practice their craft and extend their relationship. It also provides an opening for a country with so many unsettled questions about race.
The play works to trigger much needed conversations, Yoakam said. “This is a piece of work that creates space for a public voice. We’re not telling people what to think. We want them to do the work for themselves.”
Just like he and Williams started 4½ decades ago.