The title of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot refers to the unbreakable bond between two brothers. But in Fugard's two-character, one-set play, the brothers--one apparently black, the other apparently white, but both classified "colored" under the apartheid law--are separated by racial hatred. And so, by implication, is Fugard's South Africa.
Staged by Phoenix's Black Theatre Troupe, Blood Knot indulges in a great deal of tedious, sometimes obscure talk that is only partially redeemed by good acting by Ken Love and a powerful final scene. The dialogue, especially in the early scenes, is a series of non sequiturs.
Fugard, who went on to write other plays with racial themes, such as A Lesson From Aloes and "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys, sets his trademark claustrophobic situation in the shantytown hovel the brothers share. The dark-skinned Zach is illiterate and has always believed that their mother slighted him in favor of Morris, who can "pass" for white. But Morris is the more unhappy of the two, having lived in both worlds and knowing that looking white isn't the same as being white.
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Presented in seven scenes, the play hammers us with repetitive symbolism that seems tedious and Sixties-ish now--an alarm clock that keeps ringing, Morris washing Zach's feet when he gets home from work in a Christlike gesture. If this is too subtle, at one point Zach extends his arms across the panes of a tall window, as if in crucifixion. Moths and butterflies are metaphors of freedom and innocent youth. The strongest part of Blood Knot is when the brothers "pretend"--and begin to say what they really think. In a gesture that was shocking and revelatory for the time--the play was written in 1961--Morris prods Zach into shouting, "I'm black! I'm black!" He is affirming himself, rather than seeing himself as lacking because he is not white.
Unfortunately, the final scene is so powerful, it emphasizes how tedious the rest has really been. Morris, dressed in a new suit, agrees to impersonate a "white gentleman." Zach, who works as a guard to keep blacks out of a white park, mimes what he would do if the "white gentleman" were accidentally locked in the park and couldn't escape. Morris as the white man is disgusted that he would see the black guard as a lower being to be feared and distrusted. Zach, for his part, feels so much violence toward his anonymous oppressor, he would willingly beat the man to death. Neither brother had been able to admit to these emotions before.
Blood Knot can be a tour de force for two actors, and in a play so often cryptic, they've got their work cut out for them. Ken Love as Zach displays a fine range of character, from the simple happiness of a man soaking his feet to blind rage against a system he has neither analyzed nor understood. Wayne Anthony was more uneven; he fit into the "white gentleman" role well, but a lot of the earlier play has him wordlessly fixing meals, cleaning the room and doing other stage business with little technique or focus. Without dialogue, Anthony had difficulty sustaining his performance.
At times, Blood Knot descends to the level of bickering about what to have for dinner. A little boring minutiae goes a long way, and Fugard gives us more than a little. But the playwright also demonstrates that the connection between brothers applies to our multiracial society, as well, and whether we talk it out or kill each other, the knot remains.