This early Athol Fugard play lacks the laser-like focus of his best work, but it packs a powerful punch and stubbornly refuses to do the expected, and at Mosaic Theater, they’re playing the hell out of it.
The Pietersen half-brothers, Morris (Tom Story) and Zacharias (Nathan Hinton), were borne of the same mother but different fathers, and as a consequence, Morris seems Caucasian whereas Zacharias is of the darkest hue. (Story is white; by engaging a white actor to play Morris Mosaic Theater Company is observing a tradition which stretches back to the play’s initial production in 1961 Johannesburg, in which Morris was played by Fugard himself).
These men, far from being heroic or even sympathetic, are crudely self-involved. Morris is a man whose mania for organization is so controlling that he sets his alarm clock to delineate how much time he should spend on each project. Zacharias gleefully recounts his first sexual encounter, which, from his own telling, sounds uncomfortably like rape. Nonetheless, they live like brothers, and though they quarrel like brothers, they have each other’s backs.
The first Act strolls along at a leisurely pace, and uses tropes recognizable in any sit-com (albeit one where the stakes include beatings and imprisonment). Zacharias works a hard and unpleasant job while Morris keeps house. Morris prepares a hot foot bath for Zacharias every time he comes home from work, and responds sympathetically to him as he recounts the day’s slights and miseries. Zach agreeably turns over his earnings to Morris, and complies with the many strictures his brother has instituted since he returned home a year ago.
Morris’ dream is to save enough money for the two of them to buy a small farm in South Africa’s vast undeveloped region. Zacharias longs for a night out with his old buddy Minnie, and the company of an agreeable lady. To resolve this dilemma, Morris proposes that Zacharias find a pen pal through one of the local newspapers, and court by mail. Since Zacharias is illiterate, Morris will serve as his scribe.
They hit pay dirt with a lissome 18-year-old named Ethel, who complies with Zach’s request for a photo. And then their troubles begin. She’s white! And she wants to visit! And her brother’s a policeman! There’s only one solution: the somewhat sexually-ambiguous Morris must pose as Zacharias, since he can “pass”.
You see where this is going, don’t you? Except you don’t. It’s going somewhere else entirely. And what started out as a leisurely comic story in the first Act becomes a taut horrific drama in the second. If you find yourself a little impatient during the first Act, calm yourself; the payoff will be worth it.
Director Joy Zinoman, generally (and correctly) acknowledged as the area’s foremost Fugard interpreter, makes a couple of interesting choices. She elects to use only the middle third of the Lang Theatre’s capacious stage for a playing space. This does two things: it allows set designer Debra Booth to construct a hovel for the brothers consistent with Fugard’s stated intention: shabby, cramped, barely adequate (Zach sleeps on a cot hoisted by cinderblocks; Morris must roll out a mat). But it also suggests a dark vast world outside of their hovel — a place of threat and mystery for the two brothers.
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I didn’t understand her second choice, though: to have an actor (Anika Harden) wander around the playing space, looking at the audience, before the opening of the first and second Acts. I am guessing that she is playing the mother of both men, but whether she is or not I could not discern why she was there. It is true that Fugard suggests a back story about her, and I imagine he could have written an entirely different play about her life (he may yet!). But this is not that story, and for me her presence was a distraction.
The distraction goes away in good order, though. Story and Hinton are spot-on; they invest us in their dilemmas in spite of their characters’ flaws, and when things start going badly for them, it makes our hearts hurt. I am not familiar enough with an Afrikaans accent to judge whether theirs was accurate, but it was consistent and convincing, with discernable bits of Dutch and English dialect (Kim Bey is the dialect coach). If you have your eyes closed you will not recognize Story as the same actor who played the harried reservation-taker in MetroStage’s fine one-actor show Fully Committed. Meanwhile Hinton, whose unlikely discovery Zinoman discussed in this interview with Christopher Henley, excels in a difficult task: he gives dignity to a character whose only interests appear at first to be drinking and having sex.
Blood Knot is fifty-six years old, and audiences were different in 1961 than they are now. If you find yourself itching to check your cell phone during one of the first Act’s slow parts, relax and imagine you are in that time, where apartheid was the law of the land, in South Africa and here, and there are no cell phones. I promise you, it will be worth the wait.
Blood Knot by Athol Fugard. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Featuring Nathan Hinton and Tom Story . Set design: Debra Booth . Lighting design: Michael Giannitti . Costume design: Brandee Mathies . Composer: Mongezi Ntaka . Sound designer: David Lamont Wilson . Properties: Michelle Elwyn . Dramaturg: Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe . Dialect coach: Kim Bey . Fight choreography: Robb Hunter . Technical director: William M. Woodard . Stage manager: Solomon Haileselassie . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.