28 February 2012

'Blood Knot'

My first performance experience at the brand-new Pershing Square Signature Center, the permanent home of the Signature Theatre Company in the glass tower at 42nd Street and 10th Avenue, was Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, a 1961 play from this season’s Residency One playwright. Performed in STC’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (to give it its full name—they like ‘em long at STC these days), the revival of the apartheid-themed play about two brothers separated by race inaugurated the new complex, and my frequent theater companion Diana and I caught the show on Wednesday evening, 22 February. (On 18 February, I published an article on ROT which describes the Signature Center and the three new theaters within it.)

A scathing indictment of South Africa’s policy of apartheid, against which Fugard campaigned fiercely, Blood Knot is the story of two biracial half-brothers, Morris and Zachariah. The men are the sons of the same mother but by different fathers, and light-skinned Morris has passed for white with little impediment—he’s even learned to read and write—but dark-skinned Zach strains as he labors in a park for whites only. The brothers live and clash together in Korsten, a black enclave outside Port Elizabeth (the town in which Fugard grew up), in a shack pieced together from corrugated metal and littered with bits and pieces of a miserable existence where Morrie has returned to look after his brother and save money—from Zach’s pay—to buy a farm. Morrie regulates the brothers’ daily lives, the sound of a ringing alarm clock signaling the times for eating, bible-reading, and sleeping, and monitors the expenses. While Morrie is focused on the brothers' future, built around a romantic notion of buying some land in one of the “blank spaces” of the map of South Africa, Zach is more interested in the present, especially when it comes to “woman.” The half-brothers frequently role-play with one another, adding an additional level of performativity to the play. These games, as the brothers call the interludes, especially the last, extended one, are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett and particularly Waiting for Godot, a play that had opened in London just six years before Blood Knot premièred. (There are also parallels between Zach and Morrie and Estragon and Vladimir that suggest the similarities aren’t accidental or even subconscious.) At the time of the play’s U.S. première, Fugard explained that the play had two aspects: “The first is an enactment of the race problem. The second is more meaningful and personal to me, since it is an expression of the white man’s guilt of responsibility.” (Nominated for a Tony as Best Play in 1985, the Broadway staging of Blood Knot starred Fugard as Morris and Zakes Mokae as Zachariah. The same cast appeared in the sole performance of the play in a makeshift theater inside an old factory in Johannesburg on 3 September 1961, its world première and the first South African play to have a multi-racial cast; previously, white actors in South Africa wore blackface to portray native African characters.)

Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for ‘separateness’ or ‘apartness’—in other words, segregation—was instituted in what was then the Union of South Africa in 1948. Under apartheid, residents of South Africa were classified into four racial groups: native (black), white (principally Afrikaner and English), Asian (mostly Indian and some Chinese), and “coloured” (mixed-race). The entire society was divided into services and areas restricted to one or another of these groups and non-white South Africans were completely disenfranchised in 1970, losing both the right to vote and, for blacks, their citizenship. (Native Africans became citizens of designated “tribal homelands.”) The system was in many ways far worse than the American Jim Crow era of segregation and there was both internal and international resistance to the policy. South Africa, which became a republic on 31 May 1961, simultaneously withdrew from the British Commonwealth because it wouldn’t have withstood the scrutiny of other members, especially the Asian and African Commonwealth nations, for a readmission vote required by its change of status. International opprobrium and sanctions increased, isolating South Africa as a pariah state in international business, sports competitions, and even tours by international performing artists. This status didn’t end until 1994 with majority rule, meaning the re-enfranchisement of native Africans and other non-white groups, and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa.

As the late Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia had been with respect to communist oppression in Eastern Europe, Athol Fugard, who turns 80 in June, was an articulate and passionate opponent of apartheid and one of the opposition’s most widely heard voices. His plays, starting in 1956, spoke eloquently and directly about the horrors of the system, even when they were comedies. Fugard used humor a great deal to illuminate the circumstances of oppression and brutality. He himself was persecuted and watched by South African authorities and his plays were banned in his home country; following a 1967 BBC telecast of Blood Knot, the South African government confiscated Fugard’s passport as a mark of its displeasure. He exacerbated this situation by insisting that his plays, which often have racially mixed casts, be performed before non-segregated audiences. Fugard had to start his own theater companies, constituted as private clubs, to effect this. Black actor Zakes Mokae, who died at 75 in 2009, was the dramatist’s frequent partner, collaborator, and colleague. The dramatist persisted, however, and plays like Blood Knot, one of his masterworks, helped spread the truth about the policies of the white minority government abroad and raised the consciousness of countless Americans and Europeans who pressed their societies and governments to pressure South Africa in increasingly effective ways. As Howard Taubman wrote of the first U.S. production, it “begins to dig deeply into what it must feel like to be a colored man in South Africa.” By depicting the dehumanizing world of South African apartheid in the lives of two individuals rather than entire groups, Fugard made the true awfulness of the system as it affected ordinary South Africans accessible to spectators who wouldn’t really understand it from a distance. In his review, Taubman continued that “as the play develops, Mr. Fugard strips away the protective coverings of playfulness and fraternity that the brothers wear for each other. At the end one sees them in a desperate struggle, which cannot be won or ended.” Using humor strengthens the sense of glimpsing reality because, as an acting teacher of mine used to quote Laurence Olivier, “Humor makes more human.”

Aside from the belated Broadway run, from 10 December 1985 to 2 March 1986 at the John Golden Theatre, a transfer from Yale Rep directed by the author (who’s also directing at Signature), there have been two other Off-Broadway productions: the 1964 American première at the Cricket Theatre in the East Village directed by John Berry starring James Earl Jones and J. D. Cannon, and a 1980 production by the Roundabout Theatre Company directed by Suzanne Shepherd with Danny Glover and Cotter Smith. The 1964 staging, produced by Lucille Lortel, launched Fugard’s career in the United States. The STC revival is the first in 26 years in New York City. (Concurrently, the first Broadway production of Fugard’s 1984 play, The Road to Mecca, is on stage at the American Airlines Theatre, a revival by the Roundabout Theatre which opened on 17 January.)

STC, which dedicates its seasons each to one playwright, has enhanced its programs with the opening of the Signature Center. The former “one writer/one season” residency has been transformed into Residency One, and Fugard, the first non-American dramatist in the series, is the designated writer for 2011-12. He’ll have three plays at STC this season: Blood Knot, which opened the new complex on 31 January; My Children! My Africa!; and the New York première of his latest play, The Train Driver. (Among its other expanded programs, STC now has another residency, Residency Five, for less-established writers. There are three productions this season from those dramatists, all premières. A seventh show in 2011-12 is Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque, which I’ll be seeing next month. Albee is this season’s Legacy writer at STC.) Fugard has directed Blood Knot and will also stage Train Driver this summer; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directed the Signature revival of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars during the troupe’s 2006-07 season, will stage My Children! My Africa! in the spring. (I’ll be seeing both the other Fugard plays later this season and reporting on the performances on ROT soon after I do.)

The Griffin, as the theater is called, is a little proscenium house, modeled, as I reported in my article on the new complex, on an old-time European opera house. It served admirably, both from the perspective of its acoustics and its layout. Though the audience risers are fixed in place, the stage platform is removable and Blood Knot’s set, which includes its own sort of platform in the floor of the hut which is raised up as if built on sawhorses and junk, is constructed in the center of the room’s floor, some three feet lower. (In fact, Christopher H. Barreca’s design includes the floor beneath what would have been the stage, with piles of trash and discarded stuff littering the space around the hut in the center of the performance area.) This makes the performance area of the Griffin resemble a black box, with the walls of the room serving as the walls of the set, pipes and conduits and all, even as the auditorium remains a more formal theater environment. This provides the performance venue a kind of mixed heritage—like the characters in Fugard’s play.

The published reviews all had some reservations about the production or the play and the Times centered its misgivings on the acting—or at least the interpretation of the apartheid-affected world which the characters inhabit. My impression of Charles Isherwood’s response was that perhaps the actors, Colman Domingo as Zach and Scott Shepherd as Morrie, are too young to grasp completely the way that world was in 1961, that it is just too distant from them in 2012 for the actors to immerse themselves viscerally in that existence. I can only say that if that was so when the play opened in January, it wasn’t much in evidence when I saw the performance. Perhaps the South African accents—Morrie’s Afrikaans-inflected English and Zach’s native African speech pattern—are a little iffy (I’m not that up on those accents; the dialect coach was Barbara Rubin) and they wobble a bit now and then, but what Domingo and Shepherd do on the Griffin’s stage that paves over any possible flaws is create the most astonishing relationship I have seen in any performance in my memory since probably Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn did The Gin Game together back in 1977. Zach and Morrie may be the oddest brothers a playwright can imagine, but Domingo and Shepherd build a credible, grounded, solid, palpable blood knot that was thoroughly engrossing and holds the 2½-hour performance together even as the play’s structure grows more and more diffuse and fuzzy. (It’s interesting to note that the two actors come together in this production from pretty diverse acting experiences: Colman from musicals—a Tony nomination for The Scottsboro Boys—and Shepherd from the Wooster Group and the Elevator Repair Service—Hamlet, Vieux Carre, Gatz.) If the actors don’t fully inhabit the world of apartheid, they are so linked together and so forcefully connected to one another, that the relationship alone can carry the show.

The hut set, as I said, is built on a platform elevated in the center of the floor and there’s a pathway around it, like a mote around a castle or a stream surrounding a little island. The shanty’s claustrophobically tiny but suggests a refuge cut off from the rest of the world. Fugard directed the actors to enter at stage right, step down onto the floor level and then trudge all the way across the front of the hut, around the left side and the back and come back around the right side to climb up into the shack. There are no walls so we can see the whole passage, and especially when Zach returns from work at the park (where he’s been required to stand guard at the gate to keep blacks and coloureds out, instead of doing some kind of active labor, which he’d prefer), he walks like a bone-weary, footsore drudge. But when he arrives home, Morrie has prepared a footbath of warm water and bath salts to soothe his brother’s callouses and hard spots. (Like Beckett’s Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Zach has constant foot problems.) When Zach remonstrates over the smell of one brand of salts over the healing properties of the other, Morrie comes up with the perfect solution: he’ll pour in half of one and half of the other so Zach gets the benefits of both. Shepherd and Domingo parry and dodge; it seems that Zach won’t be satisfied while Morrie keeps trying to find a way to accommodate his brother and the two actors begin to build the brotherly relationship that grows deeper and more complex as the play unfolds.

The relationship sometimes looks as if it might degenerate into one of master and servant (a shadow of Pozzo and Lucky in Godot?), with Morrie taking command and almost cowing Zach into going along with one of his ideas, and Shepherd may skirt that dynamic but always pulls back before the brothers can descend into it. At the same time, Fugard seems to mean for us to see the danger of that possibility as an inherent consequence of the established divide South African society has mandated. At the same time, there are hints in the relationship of paternalism as Morrie cajoles or coddles Zach when the black brother hesitates or resists, or when Morrie must take command because he can read or write or rationalize, “white” skills in the segregated apartheid world. There are also clear indications of Morrie's sincere solicitude for Zach; for instance, there’s only one bed in the tiny shack, obviously Zach’s—so where does Morrie sleep? Possibly they share the bed, Zach sleeping at night and Morrie during the day while his brother’s at work, but I suspect Morrie sleeps on the floor beside Zach’s cot. I think this is what Fugard meant by “an expression of the white man’s guilt of responsibility,” but Shepherd and Domingo don’t play the political overtones, they play the personal core of the scenes, and that’s what makes this performance—these performances—so strong and vibrant and what makes the play so moving and powerful, even now when apartheid and Jim Crow are both merely nagging memories which we’re all still trying to shake and move on from.

Among the most remarkable aspects of Blood Knot are the games Morrie and Zach play. At first, they’re recollections of their shared childhood, before Morrie went off to live in the white world. We see the split that formed even then, though, when Zach tells his brother that Morrie got all the toys—somehow there was always only one, like a top Morrie doesn’t even remember—and that their mother sang different songs to each brother. Briefly, Morrie panics that maybe they didn’t share the childhood he thought they had had in common, but then they light on the game they played in the shell of an abandoned car as they took imaginary trips with Zach at the wheel and Morrie describing the passing scene as they drove out of the town into the country, going faster and faster. I could sense in Shepherd’s momentary fear the loss of the connection he was sure they had, and the return of the fraternal blood knot, “the bond between brothers,” when they relive the road-trip fantasy. Just when it looks like Morrie and Zach might slip into an exploiter-exploited relationship, Shepherd and Domingo realign the portrayals and I saw again the bond that brought Morrie back to Korsten. The farm is a dream, of course, almost certainly an impossible one, but Shepherd made me believe that he really wants it for both of the brothers, even if Zach isn’t so sure. Domingo keeps Zach focused on the here and now, the more immediate needs and desires: his feet, his racist boss at the park, and a woman for sexual companionship.

It’s that last desire that nearly breaks the brothers up and threatens real disaster. Since Morrie’s arrival in Korsten about a year earlier, Zach hasn’t had much contact with an old friend who used to come by so the two could drink together and go cruising for women. Morrie wants to save all of Zach’s earnings toward the farm, so socializing has been eliminated, and Zach misses it—especially “woman.” The more Zach talks about it, the more animated, even lustful, Domingo gets, and finally Morrie lights on an idea that he convinces Zach will be just as good as an actual woman: a female pen pal chosen from a newspaper ad. The next day, the brothers select a candidate and start the correspondence, with Morrie being the Cyrano of the duo and the illiterate Zach, the inarticulate Christian de Neuvillette—until the young woman sends a photo. It’s then Morrie discovers that Zach had brought home a newspaper for whites and that all the ads were from white women. To make matters worse, Ethel, the pen pal, has a brother who’s a policeman. Morrie sees the danger in continuing even to correspond with a white woman, but Zach insists and begins to wax more fanciful in his letters. Domingo’s portrayal hints at a kind of defiance, revolt against the kind of marginalization he’s suffered at the hands of a racist society (as illustrated by his treatment at work by his white supervisor). It’s nearly subliminal, but it’s there. Then Ethel announces that she’s going to be in Port Elizabeth for a holiday and would like to meet Zach, and Morrie nearly falls to pieces in fear of the likely consequences. The brothers decide they can’t avoid the meeting by lying about not being available, so Zach convinces Morrie to go in his place and they go so far as to buy a suit and other appropriate accessories for a white gentleman. Luckily, Ethel cancels the visit and ends the correspondence when she writes Zach that she’s getting married, but the potential that the entrance of a third party, even before the men learn she’s white, might tear the dream apart—the money Morrie’s saved to buy the farm has already been spent on the fancy duds—and that Ethel could split the two up, makes clear that what Morrie had in mind was a two-man farm, a world for just him and Zach to inhabit, a larger version of the shanty, a safe and happy place insulated from apartheid, prejudice, inhumanity, injustice, and all the failings Zach had experienced and for which Morrie had to teach him the names. In 1961, no place like that existed in South Africa, but Morrie is blind to that reality.

The games get more precarious and dangerous in act two, as the play slides inexorably away from Naturalism to Absurdism, when they move from innocent childhood role-plays to more contemporary situations, as when Zach brings home the new suit for Morrie so he can meet Ethel. (It’s amusing to see what Zach and Morrie’s notions of white gentlemanliness consists of, both in dress—the suit’s electric blue!—and in demeanor.) As the brothers rehearse for the meeting, Shepherd gets more and more into his role as the superior white man with Domingo playing the menial black man. Morrie gets carried away in a flash and calls his brother “nigger.” The look of shock on Domingo’s face and of instant shame and regret in Shepherd’s tells the whole story in a beat and reveals the very core of Fugard’s play—the destructiveness of apartheid and prejudice of all kinds, how it demeans all the participants, even those who resist its viciousness. (Morrie had returned to Zach because he didn’t like passing for white.) It invades the body and the mind, and no matter how hard you try, it gets in and eats away at your humanity . . . until you can call your own brother “nigger.” That right there is what Fugard spent his career writing about—and against.

The final game, during which Zach and Morrie essentially knock down the cabin and clear the floor platform, spins off into Beckett-land. (There’s also a bit of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s Motel in the scene, too, though that play didn’t come along until three years later.) The elements of Godot and End Game are so clear that I have to conclude that the impulse wasn’t subliminal but conscious and deliberate. If Becket was writing about the existential collapse of humanity and civilization (and I’m being very general and superficial here), Fugard was writing about the same collapse, but in a more concrete and visible context. I’d never seen Blood Knot before, though I’ve known about the play for years. From this 21st-century mounting, I can only imagine the impact it must have had on American audiences in 1964—it must have been a revelation.

Diana objected to the lax dramatic structure of Blood Knot (though in the end, she effused about the performances as much as I did, so I gather they overshadowed her intermission misgivings by the time the play ended). In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli agrees that the “first act of this revival dillydallies on a road to nowhere interesting” but continues that “the show eventually picks up. The first half lulls you into a snooze; the second slaps you awake” and Joe Dziemianowicz writes in the New York Daily News: “The play moves slowly and at times gets ponderous before delivering a wallop.” My feeling is that the problem’s nothing more than a very young playwright, 28 at the time with only four plays produced before this one, trying new ideas and styles, not having really come to grips with the form. At 2½ hours, the script could have stood some editing and streamlining 50 years ago, but the loose structure, almost non-structure, of the play didn’t bother me. (I should note here, perhaps, that among my all-time favorite plays are Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, two notoriously unconventionally structured plays. I may not be the person whose judgment you want to follow in this instance.) Charles Isherwood, writing in the New York Times, says that “the production is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally engaging” because “a crucial spark of authentic feeling remains stubbornly absent.” I want to note, though, that Isherwood adds that the actors hadn’t “as yet” completely absorbed the nuances of their roles and the relationship, so I’m going to suggest that by the time I saw the production, both Shepherd and Domingo had nailed those aspects of the characters. (Of course, maybe Isherwood and I just don’t see this work the same way.) The Times reviewer concludes his notice by stating: “As the lights dim on the brothers facing a vacant future, bound in a relationship now potentially tainted by all that has passed, the heart remains cool because the performance never truly plumbs the play’s anguished depths.” I can’t agree. Maybe my heartstrings are more easily plucked than Isherwood’s, but I was left heart sore and moved. In Back Stage (a paper, after all, aimed at actors), Erik Haagensen declares that “thanks to the superb performances of Scott Shepherd and Colman Domingo and author Fugard's knowing direction, the show keeps picking up steam and ends with a Beckettian wallop.” In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout (in a review headlined “Waiting for Mandela”) states unequivocally: “If you don't find this revival enthralling, you're not thrillable.” Most reviewers came down in the end, as I did, on Teachout’s side.

I should add at the end that though, as I said, the Griffin Theatre works excellently as a performance space, the umbrella of the Signature Center presented a few inadequacies that didn’t reveal themselves when I visited the complex on 2 February. First, when the company was housed at the single-theater Norton Space, the two-window box office was more than sufficient to handle the audiences arriving to pick up will-call tickets or to conduct other business before curtain. (My partner is often late enough that I have to leave her ticket at the box office when I decide to go on into the auditorium, for instance.) With three performances starting at about the same time at the new Signature Center, the line-up at Concierge Desk was well over a dozen people when I arrived to claim my seats, and when I decided not to wait for Diana in the lobby any longer, I saw that I’d be standing in a line again to leave her ticket for her, long enough to chance being late into the theater. There were three concierges on duty, but their efficiency was apparently poor as they searched for each arriving patron’s tickets, and had I not hesitated a moment to get back on the line, during which time Diana popped up, I’d have been waiting there myself a second time. That clearly needs to be ironed out. Further, when the staff announced that the house was opened for audience seating, the PA system was almost inaudible over the hubbub of three audiences gathered in the lobby. I’d noticed that the acoustics in the lobby weren’t good when I was there earlier, but I hadn’t realized that even under amplification, announcements couldn’t be heard there when there was a full room of people hanging about. As I did remark before, however, the Signature Center’s lobby isn’t a very comfortable space to wait; in practice it isn’t any more welcoming than I thought when I saw it on the tour. The Norton lobby, such as it is, is cramped and has little seating for waiting spectators, but it isn’t being sold as a place to gather and hang out; the Signature Center’s lobby is supposed to be more than a place to wait for the theaters to open their doors. For now, at least, I don’t think I’ll be treating it as anything more than that.

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