When Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot premiered in 1961 at the African Music and Drama Association in Johannesburg, it was met with a storm of controversy tied to race. The play is about two black half-brothers—one very dark and one light enough to pass for white (played initially by Fugard himself)—and their rage as oppressed people under apartheid. As a result of the performance, the production was immediately banned in South Africa, and interracial casts and audiences were also outlawed.
When the same play kicked off the American Players Theatre season this summer —almost six decades later— it was also met with a storm of controversy tied to race, specifically questioning the casting of longtime APT company member James DeVita in the intense two-hander. In Mike Fischer’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of the production, he acknowledged it had been traditional to use a Caucasian actor in the role of the light-skinned brother but chastised the theater for following this precedent writing, “No white actor can capture that existential dilemma as well as a black actor can.” He continued, “APT would never cast DeVita as a black man in an August Wilson play. It shouldn’t have cast him as a black man in this one.”
In the weeks that followed, the review was shared via social media across the country, with actors, critics, directors, and audience members weighing in on the issue of “whitewashing” — giving a role written for a person of color to a white actor. APT’s actions were compared to a St. Louis production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway earlier this year, a revue of scenes from famous American musicals which cast a white actress as Tuptim, an Asian character in The King and I. It was also likened to the 2015 incident at Ohio University where a white man was tapped to play Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop.
In response, APT Blood Knot actor Gavin Lawrence issued a statement which said in part, “If what you come away with after having experienced Blood Knot is a problem with the casting, then I humbly submit that you’ve missed the point, or that you have some other agenda – either way I have to say that you’re clearly not ‘woke.’ And for those who jump on social media bandwagons based on headlines without doing your homework, please work on your critical thinking skills. When a situation of racial or cultural appropriation in the American theatre truly calls for response and action, I’ll be right there with you. This production, however, is not one of them.”
The play’s director, Ron OJ Parson also stood behind the production, stating that, “The allegorical nature of the play is enhanced with this casting,” walking back an earlier statement that he gave to Fischer in a pre-opening night interview where he admitted that he “might well have cast Blood Knot differently,” if the decision had been his.
Blood Knot playwright Athol Fugard’s correspondence with actor James DeVita was also made public, which included the writer’s statement, “I have always seen Blood Knot as an extended metaphor, which the use of a white actor serves to exaggerate. Positing a white and black body as having come out of the same mother goes some way to express the ambiguities of the time, and moreover, underline that race is but a construct.”
An additional statement from American Players Theatre detailed the care with which they undertook the production, and finished with this: “We value both the art and the conversation, and understand that people may – and do – disagree. And those viewpoints are also important and necessary to continue this very complex, very difficult and too-long ignored conversation. Only through such conversations can the arts continue to be a powerful voice on the issue of race in the stories we tell.”
Despite these explanations, some members of the Madison arts community did not feel that APT did enough to acknowledge their concerns or respond to their objections. In a recent phone interview, local director Dana Pellebon said, “I understand what Fugard was trying to do in 1961, during apartheid in South Africa. It was groundbreaking. What I’m saying is that in 2018 Wisconsin, there are many other factors at play, regardless of the historical aspect. The context is different now. For me, (casting a white man to play a mixed race character) is inappropriate, in almost every way. We are living in a different time. My story should not be played for the torture porn of white people.”
In an effort to initiate a constructive conversation about the casting controversy, on Sunday, August 12, American Players Theatre extended an invitation to the general public to attend a special pay-what-you-like performance of Blood Knot and remain in the theater after the show for a panel discussion and talkback featuring nationally known black actors, critics and scholars. The discussion was moderated by Jerald Raymond Pierce, the Chicago-based writer who penned a recent article about the issue for American Theatre magazine.
APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita welcomed the panelists to the stage, including award-winning actor and recent Ten Chimneys Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program Master Teacher Stephen McKinley Henderson; scholar and theater professor Khalid Yaya Long; and Atlanta based arts journalist Kelundra Smith. Author and arts engagement expert Donna Walker-Kuhne was scheduled to participate in the panel also, but was unable to attend due to flight delays. Blood Knot’s director Ron OJ Parson was also asked to join the panel, but could not take time away from other directing projects.
DeVita set the tone for the discussion by stating that the experience of the previous several months, when the theater and its artistic decisions had been called into question both locally and nationally, was both harrowing and challenging, but ultimately a gift. “We’re all just trying to understand better what it is to be a human being and reflect that through our art,” she said. “Our intent today is to have a complex, nuanced discussion about what we need to learn, as we move forward.”
And while the audience in the crowded theater listened intently and respectfully, that’s what happened, perhaps for the first time since the controversy began.
It is significant to note that when asked about the often vitriolic response on social media prompted by his review of Blood Knot, former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Mike Fischer responded, “I can’t comment on what’s on Facebook, since I have not seen it.” Actor Gavin Lawrence similarly went on record saying that he had not read Fischer’s review before posting his response. And when I spoke to Dana Pellebon several days before the talkback, she indicated that she did not plan to attend the forum since, in her view, it would not be a “community conversation,” as none of the panelists were local.
Fortunately, Pellebon had a change of heart. She saw the play and spoke her mind about the experience when the floor was opened up to members of the audience. Mike Fischer was also in attendance, although he did not comment, and Gavin Lawrence shared the space as a performer.
Far from presenting a unanimous, singular response, the panelists offered a wide range of opinions and analysis about Athol Fugard’s play, its relevance to American audiences in 2018, the lens that contemporary audiences use to view the work, and how casting choices can affect that experience. Henderson started the discussion by largely dismissing the controversy. He began, “Someone yelled fire in a building that wasn’t on fire, making a statement that the casting was wrong. . . it’s ludicrous. I was proud to see this brilliant production, cast brilliantly, performed brilliantly.”
Later he added that “casting is not a social justice act,” but conceded that theaters need to embrace the issues facing contemporary society, with new plays that address problems of racism, which he termed “America’s birth defect.”
Smith echoed his admiration for the production, and saw the play as a natural catalyst for audiences and theater-makers to begin related conversations about race that “we have been itching to have.” She referenced an Actors Equity report published in 2017 that showed less than 10% of performance contracts were given to black actors and that people of color in general are grossly underrepresented onstage. As a corollary, she wondered aloud how black actors could pursue their American dream, which should ideally be attainable by all, in an atmosphere of so few opportunities.
Smith also referred to the initial casting of a white man in the role of the light skinned brother in 1961 as a “decision made in trauma” — under the system of apartheid — and that in the current context that precedent holds little sway. In response to a question about respecting the playwright’s intent, Smith agreed that it is important to consider, but the writer is only one stakeholder in a production and should not necessarily have final say on how a play is cast or produced.
Long contributed his view as a scholar, that conversations about racial representation onstage are ongoing, and the questions of “whose story is it, and who gets to tell it? are common discussion points at dramaturgical conferences. As a professor who routinely asks his students to consider the historical context of each play they study, Long suggested that Blood Knot at APT had elicited much stronger responses than productions mounted in 2012 and 2014 using the same casting conventions because the social and cultural context for audiences has changed dramatically in that time: Namely the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have emerged and police violence against young black men has increased, making viewers rightfully more sensitive to representations of race.
Long characterized his own concern with APT’s casting of Blood Knot as a “re-centering of whiteness.” He elaborated, “I believe that the audience walks away from this production seeing a white man berating a black man, and that’s an opportunity missed, to look at the way colonization affects all people.”
Toward the close of the talkback Henderson summed up the value of theater that confronts contemporary issues by saying, “The frankness of art is healthy. We can’t be lightweights about it. Art wants to leave us better than it found us. But it can cost.”
Finally our moderator encouraged us all to keep talking to each other about thorny issues presented in plays like Blood Knot in our homes, and in our communities. “It’s the only way we can make change,” Pierce concluded.