“It’s only a game.”
This phrase can often be categorized as famous last words, especially in the riveting production of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, currently in performances at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed by Fugard and featuring performances by Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd, Fugard’s play explores the tensions, both racial and familial, between two very different brothers.
First performed Off-Broadway in 1964, Blood Knot was the first South African play performed with an interracial cast and is credited with launching Fugard’s career in America. The script explores the relationship between two brothers who share the same mother but have different fathers. Morris (Shepard), is extremely light-skinned and can pass as a white man in society. Zachariah (Domingo) has much darker skin and lives in a small, dirty shack in the “colored” section of Port Elizabeth in 1961, when apartheid still held the country. (The shabby, decrepit set was designed by Christopher H. Barreca.) After several years away from his hometown, Morris has returned to Port Elizabeth to live with Zachariah, keeping house while Zachariah works to support them both.
The differences in the two men are apparent from the first scene of Blood Knot. Morris is soft-spoken, orderly and precise, keeping track of the time with an alarm clock. He dotes on Zachariah, preparing him footbaths, cooking their humble dinners and reading out loud from the Bible every night. He also hoards their money, hoping to save enough to purchase land for a farm. Despite being adults, the two engage in active games of make-believe, which are enhanced by their vivid imaginations. Zachariah is blunt, coarse and primal in his desires – the most pressing of which is a woman. Lusting for human contact, he expresses this wish to Morris, who suggests Zachariah pursue a pen pal instead. A situation similar to Cyrano de Bergerac soon ensues, with Zachariah bluntly shouting sentences and Morris precisely softening them into a suitable letter to send to a young woman. Conflict ensues when they realize the woman, Miss Ethel Lange, is white and intends to visit the racially segregated Port Elizabeth to meet her pen pal. (The fact that her brother is a policeman does not ease the situation, either.)
The two quickly plan for Morris to meet the woman in Zachariah’s stead, passing as white. In order for this plan to work, he is forced to use the money saved for a farm to purchase new clothing. He is hesitant to do so, but Zachariah insists upon it and he eventually concedes. When dressed in the outfit – or costume – the brothers’ game takes a darker turn as Morris begins acting as white man would, ordering Zachariah around and using degrading language. The internal conflict between the two men is now external – and hidden behind the mask of make-believe.
A successful production of Blood Knot relies on the chemistry between the actors playing Morris and Zachariah, and Shepard and Domingo are absolutely believable as the brothers. Shepard gives an understated, thoughtful and nuanced production as the cautious Morris who, haunted by guilt, strives to build a better life for his family while struggling with his latent feelings of racism and anger. And Domingo, who was wonderful in last season’s The Scottsboro Boys, is captivating as Zachariah, whose primal feelings of rage are hidden by a jovial exterior. The two play-act a scene where Morris pretends to be a white man passing the gate that Zachariah guards at a camp, the “game” quickly escalates into a dangerous, violent scene that had me holding my breath in anticipation of what might happen.
Directed by Fugard, this intimate production of Blood Knot is gritty and frightening, with the realities that lurk behind the role-playing evident. “It’s only a game,” Morris frequently says to Zachariah. But nothing could be further from the truth.