Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Blood Knot
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Caught, Small Mouth Sounds and The Sins of Sor Juana


James A. Williams and Stephen Yoakam
Photo by Rich Ryan
Athol Fugard is a giant of late 20th century English-language theater. He attained the admiration of the world, and notoriety in his native South Africa, with plays that dealt both directly and obliquely with the inhumanity of the apartheid system. In 1961, when he was 29, his first notable success, Blood Knot, opened in Johannesburg. Fugard, who is white, co-starred in the two-hander with his frequent collaborator Zakes Mokae, a black actor. Times being what they were in strictly segregated South Africa, the play closed after just one performance. In 1964 visionary producer Lucille Lortel brought The Blood Knot (as it was titled at that time) to New York for an acclaimed Off-Broadway run, launching Fugard's reputation in the United States.

Pillsbury House Theatre has mounted a bravura new production of Blood Knot, affirming the searing power and timeless incisiveness of Fugard's work, amplified by towering performances from James A. Williams and Stephen Yoakam. Two high-test talents collaborated to bring this production to the stage: Stephen DiMenna, director, and Marion McClinton, listed as creative consultant. Both gentlemen have prestigious credentials as directors in New York theater, as well as locally and around the nation. Their combined efforts yield a beautifully wrought stage work that places full confidence in the heat of Fugard's script and their gifted actors, who, for the duration of two acts, disappear as performers and exist only as the characters spawned from Fugard's inspired mind.

Fugard has a gift for creating characters who are believable human beings, formed of whole cloth, and also take on the mantle of symbolism, representing a significant theme or aspect of society. Blood Knot is built around two brothers, dark-skinned Zachariah (Williams) and light-skinned Morris (Yoakam). Both are black under South African law, but Morris has the ability to pass for white, which has created a gulf between them. Until a year ago, Morris had been wandering the country while Zach toiled as a gate boy at a rich white man's estate. Since Morris resurfaced in his brother's life, he keeps their space as orderly as possible, produces meals from what little they have to eat, and prepares salted soaks to sooth Zach's aching feet when he returns from work. Among Morris' few visible possessions are a bible, from which he attempts to find words of wisdom suitable for each upheaval that comes along, and an alarm clock that seems to provide the primary structure in his life.

Zach anticipates his life going on this way, unchanged, but Morris has a plan: he is saving up, eking out a pittance from Zach's meager earnings, to buy a farm so the two can provide for themselves. He stashes the money in a metal box he calls "the future." Zach, however, sees little hope in the future. His concerns are for the present, specifically his carnal desire for a woman, a need that has gone unmet since Morris reappeared a year ago. Morris consents to help Zach, turning to advertisements in the newspaper posted by women to be pen pals. The pen pal will be for Zach, but only Morris can read or write, so it by necessity is a collaborative effort. What starts out seeming to be good fun spirals out of control, culminating with the two brothers acting out the roles of dark skinned and light skinned men so ingrained in their society, imbedded with condescension, scorn, and violence.

The behaviors so deeply imbedded in the two brothers flare up in ways that may shock audience members, and that depict the worst elements of social conditioning, aspect of society, whether in South Africa or in our own nation, that those of good will have struggled mightily to abandon, to turn over new leaves in the story of human relations. Have we moved beyond the bifurcated society Fugard depicted 58 years ago? Is Blood Knot a historical record of how hopeless things once were? Sadly, the news every day testifies to the fact that these demons lie within our social fabric, perhaps dormant, but with the potential to be rekindled by inflammatory rhetoric or abandoned standards of decency.

From the moment we lay eyes on set designer's Joseph Stanley's stunning vision of a wretched one-room shack, patched together with sheets of corrugated metal and scrap wood, we are drawn to another world, to a very specific location that, by necessity, is home to two these two men, with Kellie Larson's props adding the bare-bone tools and trappings that allow Morris and Zach to meet their most basic needs.

Trevor Bowen's costume designs feel completely organic to the setting, and in the course of the play provide support for the adage that "clothes make the man." Michael Wangen's lighting accentuates the paltry man-made illumination, with day and night following the arc of the sun, while Katherine Horowitz's soundscape places these humble dwellings within context of the forces of nature all around.

Morris or Zachariah are neither good men nor bad men, merely men who live in a society that challenges even brothers to live together in peace. They have not chosen the roles that history, biology and culture have conspired to assign them. They can willfully set those roles aside in order to attain a harmonious existence, but the roles will still lurk within. Perhaps better to acknowledge and manage those forces, and perhaps—in time—find a way to dismantle them, rather than force them to fester until they explode, leaving a landscape of devastation and heartbreak. In this regard, Blood Knot is not a story of life in South African, but a story of life on Earth.

Blood Knot, through June 16, 2019, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $24.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

Playwright: Athol Fugard; Director: Stephen DiMenna; Creative Consultant: Marion McClinton; Assistant Director: Carlyle Brown; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Light Design: Michael Wangen; Props Design: Kellie Larson; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; House Technician: Katie Deutsch; Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and No?l Raymond

Cast: James A. Williams (Zachariah), Stephen Yoakam (Morris)


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