Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Known for his thoughtful consideration regarding sensitive subject matter, director James Cady allows this production to evolve to a level of genuine simplicity. Each brother isolated and unguarded, the night's audience witnesses the complicated intimacies that both tie and repel them.
In what is probably one of the shortest inaugural runs known, the South African government closed it down after the first night, as Fugard touched a raw nerve with this metaphorical work. Afrikaans himself, yet recognizing apartheid as the aberration it is, Fugard wrote this parable to publicly condemn the reality of South Africa at the time. The government, by withdrawing his passport (returning it after four years of outrage by many abroad), publicly condemned his condemnation, thus, one could assume, proving his point.
Set in South Africa during apartheid in the 1960s, we meet Morris and Zachariah, brothers united by the same mother but different (always absent) fathers. Morris, so light-skinned he could and has passed for white, and Zach, who could not be mistaken for anything but Black. The two brothers have been living together since Morris returned from parts unknown a year before. Divided by more than skin color, much more than unresolved childhood issues surface as the slower-witted and illiterate Zach, with the fundamental instincts of a survivor, reminisces with Morris, educated and ambitious, now living in the "colored" section, afraid because of his light skin, to leave the hut.
Cady has cast this production with his usual care. Matthew Van Wettering is always a great choice, and any doubts I erroneously held regarding the less experienced Marcus Ivey carrying the co-lead as Zachariah evaporated immediately once he took the stage. With vulnerability bordering on passion, both men bond so beautifully I often forgot they are disparate people, one Black, one white, brought together for the sole purpose of performing.
We enter the theater via a roadway filled with debris, empty bottles of alcohol, a stray chicken (nice touch that), torn wire fencing, damaged pallets–broken fragments from another lifetime. We see Morris alone, napping on a crudely built bed in a corrugated shack, plastic scraps and pieces of cracked slats holding the place together. An alarm clock, which we soon see dictates his every move, rings harshly in the silence. In reversed roles for the era, Morris prepares for his brother Zach's arrival home from work (as gatekeeper at a park, his only purpose to keep other Black people out)–dinner ready, hot water and salts ready to bathe his sore calloused feet. Day after day, Zach accepts this as his due, so it is with some surprise we realize all is not completely harmonious between the brothers. Murmurings of discontent arise from Zachariah as he reminisces about his life in the years before Morris' return. Years of evenings filled with drinking, carousing, and music with his friend Minnie. Evenings firmly in the past now, Morris is determined they save all Zach's earnings to buy a two-man farm, far away from where they now live.
To appease his brother, Morris suggests he get a lady pen-pal from the advertising section, not initially realizing the newspaper Zachariah returns with is the white-man's newspaper. As they settle upon Ethel, a suitable lady with whom to write, we get a glimpse into the value Zach places on women as he alludes to (probably) raping a former girlfriend, laughingly describing leaving her crying in the field. Morris, not as open as his brother on these matters, refers obliquely to a romance of some kind, a romance he seemed afraid to consummate, though whether it was because it was with a white woman or with a man, we never discover.
The letter dictated by Zach and written by Morris on the rough and ready table is dispatched. Miss Ethel's reply is received, first with excitement, then horror when they discover Ethel is white. Not only is she white, but she also has a brother who is a policeman. Her next letter, saying she will be in their neighborhood soon and intends to visit, lays the groundwork for the crux of the play.
Morris, with fearful knowledge garnered from years living as a camouflaged Black man masquerading among whites, knows the consequences of a Black man even looking directly at a white woman. When Zach fully realizes the danger, he suggests Morris once more passes as white to meet with Miss Ethel in his stead. He takes most of the money saved for their farm and buys Morris a white gentleman's outfit–hat, boots, handkerchief, and an umbrella for Miss Ethel should it rain, included.
And this is where the adage "clothes make the man" comes to mind. There is a change in both brothers' personas when Morris dons merely the jacket and the umbrella–a sudden aggression and shocked reaction nervously laughed off by both. Shortly afterward, they reenact childhood memories and games, each with different recollections of the same events, describing events where Morris is by far favored by their mother, with Zach's resigned acceptance of the motivations. The final letter from Ethel announcing her engagement, and now no longer visiting, brings relief. Later, when Zach suggests Morris dress up in the outfit, they continue their games. And it is here the play comes into its own. Monologues from both men are heartbreaking.
Van Wettering and Ivey, accompanied by a musical atmosphere that almost feels like a third character on the stage, do justice to the spirit and significance of the author's words. All the anger and anguish of apartheid become tangible, as years of resentment and guilt overflow onto the stage. Seeing this performance, it becomes easy to understand why those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo tried to silence Fugard.
I must give a shout out here to the entire production team for the completely coordinated environment they achieve with this production: Mary Rossman's scenic design (with a model available to see in the lobby); set decoration and painting by Lorri Oliver and Pete Parkin, with Oliver also credited with props; costumes by Rhonda Backinoff; sound by Marty Epstein; and lighting by Ray Rey Griego. And finally, the actors' dialects, which remain consistent throughout the entire show (so rare, that) are thanks to excellent coaching by Mark Dallas.
There is no resolution to this intense tale, because still no solution to racism exists so far. Neither Fugard nor Cady give us a nice tidying up of loose ends or happily-every-afters onstage either. Apartheid supposedly is no longer, but prejudice and bigotry still lurk around every corner.
This powerful play resonates, as it should. Catch it soon, as it has a short run.
Blood Knot runs through November 13, 2022, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Friday-Saturday 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m. General admission $24, Discount $19. PWYW: October 30, 2022. Talkback: October 30, 2022. For tickets and information, please call 505-247-8600 or visit vortexabq.org.