“Clothes make the Man” catalyzes devastatingly angry conflict between two half-brothers in a gruesome look into South African Apartheid in Athol Fugard’s two man play, “Blood Knot.”
Set in a black neighborhood in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, two brothers share a room and save for their dream of owning a small farm, someday. Morris and Zachariah, raised by their black mother possess different fathers–one presumed black; the other white. Zach, the darker of the brothers works and provides the income while Morris the lighter remains in the room to cook and clean.
From the beginning, the idea of white privilege starts to direct the audience where the path leads. With two amazing actors who understand character development, Damron Russel Armstrong portrays Zachariah as Brian Paulette brings a low-key Morris to life. (The play evolved into a staged reading following unforeseen complications.)
The story revolves around the hopes and dreams of each brother. Zach, uneducated and illiterate looks up to Morris who can read, write, has some education, and has been away for several years before returning to the one-room “home.” Zach and Morris want a small farm and to escape their current location. Zach works; Morris saves.
Subtle at first, the notion that Zach never received an education while Morris did sends a direct message of white privilege to this story. Zach working while supporting Morris also gives commentary on the social issue of black verses white in this tale of Apartheid. As the show develops the viewers experience the split along color lines to grow wide as the Grand Canyon.
Morris encourages Zach to develop a pen pal relationship with a woman to occupy his time. Unfortunately, Zach’s correspondence goes awry when he receives a photograph that confirms his new pen pal, a white woman, enjoys and encourages his letters. She has no idea of his skin color.
When the pen pal mentions she wants to visit Port Elizabeth and meet Zach face to face, his reality awakens him to the fact that his life and specifically his color could have devastating results in the severely racial divide of South Africa. His solution: dress Morris like a gentleman and send him to meet the pen pal.
“Blood Knot” contains elements of other well-known works, so much so that the plot telegraphs the outcome. Two down and out men want to save to purchase a farm. The dream calls to mind George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men.” One man wants the other to write letters to a pen pal contains traces of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The idea that one brother can pass for white smacks of American racial issues that were explored as early as the Broadway musical “Show Boat,” or movies like Pinky or I Pass for White. None presented a happy outcome.
As the story unfolds, the audience learns that Morris had a toy top; Zach did not. Morris attended school; Zach did not. Morris from a white father lived among whites; Zach, from a black father, worked for whites.
The crux of the story and conflict builds as Morris dons the clothing Zach buys him to meet the white pen pal. As Morris reluctantly dresses, the characters evolve. Slowly, Paulette begins to build on the supremacy of whites over blacks. Comparatively, Zach begins to become more of a servant than equal.
“Blood Knot” continues to push the idea and the characters grow, change, and divide. The outcome sends shock waves through the audience as they come face to face with the severity of racial prejudice, divide, jealousy, anger, rage, supremacy, and hidden feelings between two brothers.
The scripted reading works well in this situation because the focus remains locked on the two professionals reading the script. Armstrong and Paulette put their energy into telling the story rather than moving through it. With the setup, no distraction takes the audience’s eyes off the two characters.
No costumes, no scene changes, no distractions rivet the attention on the actors. Armstrong and Paulette establish an immediate chemistry that builds. Their climactic scenes in Act II demonstrate sibling rivalry in a boiling caldron of under-privileged black and unduly privileged whites.
“Blood Knot” makes the case that the time is long past to shed any color perspectives and see people as people. Fugard’s play strips away the veil of courtesy to deal with the raw issues in South Africa. From the lessons learned, the play encourages re-examination of current values, current trends, current uprisings, current facades.
In selecting “Blood Knot” for The Black Repertory Theatre’s inclusion in its season, Armstrong delivers a strong message that more plays by black authors need discovery and presentation to move the discourse forward. According to Armstrong, now is the time for all good men and women to come to an understanding of the value of all–regardless of skin color, country of origin, religion and whatever else divides. Now is the time to conjuror divisions.
“Blood Knot” presents a powerful and disturbing picture of stark racial gaps in South Africa. The lessons learned speak to current problems still brewing. The play needs a wide, diverse audience to understand and spur a valid discussion.
Tickets, dates, times, location can be found on the Black Repertory Theatre website. Do not miss the opportunity to see this devastatingly honest look into a closeted problem.
Tags: “Blood Knot” review, Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment