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'Blood Knot' at Pillsbury House Theatre: Appearances are everything in apartheid South Africa

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The chilling climax of Blood Knot comes during an episode of play-acting. Seeing that his words have stunned his brother Zachariah, Morris asks for absolution. It’s just pretend... right?

The scene speaks to the context in which Athol Fugard’s play premiered: South Africa under apartheid, 1961. After a single performance in Johannesburg, laws were passed prohibiting blacks and whites from sharing a stage. For the white authorities, Blood Knot dramatized inconvenient truths.

A play about two brothers sharing a shack in South Africa, Blood Knot still carries its charge of verisimilitude. A new production by Pillsbury House Theatre keeps the focus squarely on this story, wrapping the audience into these brothers’ complex relationship.

It’s a challenging piece for both actors and audience, running two and a half hours (including intermission) with only minor changes to set and lighting. Fortunately, director Stephen DiMenna has two of the Twin Cities’ most compelling performers. James A. Williams and Stephen Yoakam build distinctive characters whose compatibilities and conflicts keep us involved from scene to scene.

The brothers were raised by the same mother but, it’s implied, have different fathers. Consequently one of the brothers (Zachariah, played by Williams) is unmistakably dark-skinned, while the other (Morris, played by Yoakam) is so light-skinned he’s often perceived as white.

They’ve long lived apart, with Morris only recently moving in to share this modest home where Zachariah’s the financial provider. Each day, the latter returns from work bone-tired and soaks his feet in a pan of hot water prepared by his brother.

The plot hinges on Morris’ notion that his brother should become the “pen pal” of a young woman who advertises her availability for correspondence. When she sends a photo as requested, they see that she’s white—and when she wants to meet up, Zachariah suggests Morris go in his place.

Fugard’s tight focus on these two men makes the play an intimate, sometimes harrowing examination of how institutional injustice can seep into the fabric of a family. Can Morris avoid internalizing the judgment of a society that perniciously accords him more humanity than his brother?

Williams and Yoakam, both commanding actors who can fill vast stages with powerful performances, devote themselves here to precision work. With little physical divide and no distractions whatsoever, audience members can (and do) watch every nuance of body language as the men affectionately but warily circle one another.

Although the play builds to that scorchingly painful “play-acting” exchange, the quieter scenes will also stick with you. Yoakam awaiting his brother’s return from work, making sure every detail is just right. Williams watching with a ruefully knowing gaze as his brother panics at the revelation of their correspondent’s race. Does Zachariah know what it could mean for this white woman to discover he’s a black man? Yes. He knows all too well.

 

Blood Knot
Pillsbury House Theatre
3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-825-0459; through June 16