February 25, 2012

"Blood Knot" Connects Strongly to the Past

Almost everything is new and sleek at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the sprawling, reportedly $70 million, theater space on 42nd Street that starchitect Frank Gehry designed to be the home of the Signature Theatre Company.

The complex has three variously- sized theaters, allowing the company to mount multiple productions at the same time. Each theater opens onto a shared lobby that is filled with lots of tables and chairs where theatergoers can sip a drink from the new bar, browse a book from the new bookstore or just sit and watch the action. Plus, there’s a spiffy lady’s room with stalls galore, although I can’t figure out why Gehry and his crew thought it was smart to put the toilet handle behind the toilet lid.

But the one thing old that remains is Signature’s commitment to celebrating one playwright each season by staging a retrospective of his or her work. The honor this year has gone to Athold Fugard and the inaugural play at Signature’s new home is Blood Knot, the 1961 work that played for just one night before the authorities in Fugard’s native South Africa shut down the two-hander for having an interracial cast and, in the process, helped make Fugard an international name. 

Borrowing bits from the Bible’s Cain and Abel and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and filtering them through the corrosive screen of the brutal apartheid system that defined South Africa for almost 50 years, Blood Knot is the story of two half-brothers: Zachariah, who is dark-skinned; and Morris, who is light enough to pass for white. 

Zach and Morrie, as they call one another, live together in a miserable one-room shack, hoarding the meager amounts that Zach earns from a menial and demeaning job and fantasizing about saving enough to buy a small farm they can work together.

The brothers’ drab but cozy existence is upset when, lonely for female companionship, they team up—only Morrie can read and write—to answer a newspaper ad seeking a pen pal. The situation becomes even more unsettled when they discover that their correspondent is a white woman. Her invitation to meet sets off actions that force the men to confront long-suppressed feelings about one another and about the cruel insidiousness of racism.

Fugard and Zakes Mokae, the black South African actor who was his frequent collaborator, created the roles in the original 1961 production and played them 24 years later when Blood Knot opened on Broadway in 1986.  Mokae died three years ago but Fugard, who will turn 80 in June, is directing the current production.

Even so, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it.  I’d just been disappointed by the Roundabout’s current revival of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca (click here to read my review). And, to be honest, the woes of apartheid just aren’t as compelling as they once were (although the news today that Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized pulls at the heart and brings them back to mind). 

But then I saw that Fugard had cast Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd as Zach and Morrie and just the thought of those two sensational actors sinking their teeth into these meaty roles turned this production into a want-to-see for me. And I’m very glad I did.

Fugard has directed the actors to underscore the humor in the play’s first act, which helps make his customary talkiness go down more easily. It may take a little time to adjust to the South African accents that Shepherd (shakily) and Domingo (exuberantly) affect but the affectionate bond they establish between the brothers is apparent right from the first scene when Shepherd’s Morrie prepares a hot tub of water so that Colman’s weary Zach can soak his aching feet while the men banter about which of them most needs a bath.

The second act calls for harsher realities.  And, as much as I admired their performances, neither Colman nor Shepherd totally nails it. The discoveries the brothers make about themselves should be simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking.  Instead, as the lights faded on the final scene, I felt a quieter sadness.  But I also felt a profound respect.

Some works deserve to be revered for what they are.  Others for what they did.  Fugard’s work helped to change a country.  We should applaud it.  And we should applaud Signature too for recognizing that not everything has to be sleek and new.

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