The sky is very low for the two brothers who share a ramshackle home, cobbled together from bits of plywood and corrugated metal in the non-white section of Korsten, South Africa. The ceiling of their shack is low. The power line that runs above it sags, almost to the roofline. Everything in these men’s environment is pushing them down, mirroring the stifling effects of Apartheid in the 1960s. This is the painfully protracted world of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, which opened on June 16th in the Touchstone at American Players Theatre. Directed by Ron OJ Parson, the production is a taut and troubling story of oppressors and the oppressed, an examination of race as a skin color, a mindset, a bond between brothers, and a curse.
Gavin Lawrence plays Zachariah, a broad shouldered, solid man with a booming voice and lusty appetites. Though he dreams of emerging from a chrysalis, transformed overnight to a free and beautiful butterfly, his dark skin has doomed him to live as a second class citizen. He stands guard all day at the gates of a whites-only club and comes home every night exhausted, with painful calluses on his feet and no hope for a future that will ever be different. Instead he lives in the moment, fantasizing about nights filled with music and women. Zach fills the room with his commanding presence, towering over his recently returned brother, though the difference in their heights is negligible.
In contrast, his half-brother Morris, played by Jim DeVita, is a shrinking and subservient man, who lives by strict schedules and tends to his brother’s needs like a frightened servant, straightening and re-straightening the silverware he lays on the table for dinner. Somehow deeply damaged by the outside world in the years he’s been absent, Morris never leaves the shack. Instead he is master of the home — preparing meals, heating water for a soothing bath of Epsom salts for Zach’s feet and reading bible verses before he declares that it’s bedtime. His only other occupation is making plans for the future, when the two brothers can finally escape the oppression and squalor of the town and tend their own farm, somewhere far away, as equal partners.
Zach is all swagger and testosterone, while Morris is soft-spoken and pensive, but there is a much greater difference between these brothers: Zach is unmistakably black and Morris is so light skinned he could pass for white.
Just as politics puts a strain on both brothers, who have to compare memories to make sure they really did come from the same, brown-skinned mother, there is tension between them as well that starts as an unspoken simmer and builds steadily with each minute. That strain is exacerbated by an interloper — Zach’s new pen pal, who they eventually discover is white woman, with a brother on the police force. As the play unfolds, every sentence becomes an examination of power and race—the privileges they can provide and the rage they can generate.
In a play that meanders slowly through the first act, Lawrence and DeVita find ways to imbue every interaction with meaning that surpasses words. Even their mundane conversations feel loaded, as power dynamics shift slightly and deeply held secrets are revealed bit by tiny bit. It’s a marathon for the two actors to constantly build toward the play’s primal, vicious, explosive final scenes— scenes that change everything and nothing for them. As painful as Blood Knot is to watch, the talent on display is equally astounding.
Similar to last season’s The Maids, a crushing drama about class where two sisters each fantasized about dominating the other, just as they were dominated by their mistress, Blood Knot is an unflinching look at the damage inflicted on oppressed people and the resulting anger that is directed inward since it cannot be expressed otherwise.