Review | Blood Knot: apartheid redux

Pillsbury House Theater, through June 16

James A. Williams and Stephen Yoakam in BLOOD KNOT. Photo by Rich Ryan.

What a difference a production can make. I saw Blood Knot by Athol Fugard some time ago at an out of state venue and was not impressed. The play seemed to have little depth past the rather obvious conceit of two brothers of mixed race in 1960’s South Africa, one with pale skin and the other with a warm brown complexion and the different lives they were forced to lead. I was wrong about the play. Pillsbury House Theatre makes Blood Knot, under the skilled direction of Stephen DiMenna, a multilayered journey through two men’s lives as they dream of a better fate. Zachariah (excellent James A. Williams) longs for a woman companion and a less grueling job while his stay at home brother Morris (the excellent Stephen Yoakam) stows away money from his brother’s meagre pay so they can one day buy a farm.

Director DiMenna draws all the nuances out of Fugard’s play as the brothers wrangle with the reality of their stunted lives. With the help of Morris, who can read and write, Zach strikes up a correspondence with a young woman who lives a hundred miles away. She describes herself in a letter as “eighteen and fully developed.” Later, when Ethel (who turns out to be white) asks to visit her pen pal, Zach’s aspirations turn to desperation. Zach tries to burn the letters but Morris tells his brother, “It’s what you thought Zach, that’s the crime…all they need for evidence is a man’s dreams.”

DiMenna shapes scenes like the one above with changes of tempo, volume and intention which allows the layers of meaning in Blood Knot to shine through. Every fifteen minutes reveals another facet of the brother’s lives as Williams’ and Yoakam’s characters parse the meanings of words like prejudice and inhumanity with tales of daily life and pretended fantasies. Just watching Yoakam don a pair of boots or Williams soak his aching feet is a theatrical event.

Fugard’s play demonstrates the crippling existence of men denied any desire or thought of a better life. Almost inevitably their frustration turns inward. In the cobbled together shack they inhabit made of corrugated metal scraps they turn on each other, alternatively goading and encouraging each other. (Kudos to set designer Joseph Stanley.) Near the end of the play, Zach’s eyes become dull embers, his eyelids droop and the audience hardly needs more than a few words to understand the desolation of his life. The Pillsbury House stage is a good place to see this intimate show unfold.

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