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Blood Knot

Powerful performances from Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd enliven Athol Fugard's searing Apartheid-era drama. logo
Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd
in Blood Knot
(© Joan Marcus)
Athol Fugard is not just the latest in a line of distinguished playwrights to which Signature Theatre Company is devoting an entire season; he is the first to have a production open in the company's brand-new and quite impressive Pershing Square Signature Center: his searing Apartheid-era drama, Blood Knot, which features powerful performances from Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd under Fugard's own direction.

Set in 1961 in a non-white section of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the play centers on two brothers. Zachariah (Domingo) is a dark-skinned, uneducated laborer, while Morris (Shepherd) is a light-skinned man who can read and write. Curiously, the difference in their skin color goes largely unremarked in the first act, but it plays a significant role in the second.

The plot gets rolling once Morris decides to help alleviate his brother's longing for a woman by setting him up with a pen pal that the brothers choose from a newspaper that Zach brings home with him. However, after they receive their first letter from Ethel, they discover to Morris' horror and Zach's bemusement that the woman is white.

Panic strikes them both once Ethel writes that she will be visiting Port Elizabeth, and would like to meet up. It's then that Zach hits on the idea that Morris could easily pass for white if he had the right clothes, setting in motion events that threaten the brothers' relationship to one another.

Domingo seems to completely disappear into his role of Zachariah, and is unafraid to bring out the man's more unsavory qualities -- particularly when describing his first sexual encounter, which was quite obviously a rape. Nevertheless, Zach remains a sympathetic character, with Domingo's broad smile and boundless energy enlivening his portrayal.

Shepherd has a remarkably expressive face that easily conveys Morris' eagerness, doubt, frustration, fear, compassion, and many other emotions. The actor also brings a certain manic quality to his actions, mixed in with a bit of OCD.

Morris and Zach live together in a dilapidated room that scenic designer Christopher H. Barreca has placed on an elevated platform that appears to float in an otherwise empty space. The barrenness of the surroundings reinforces the brothers' feelings of isolation, and also proves effective in the play's second act, as the actors push all of the furniture on the platform into the emptiness to signify a shift into a world of make-believe.

It's in this scene, reminiscent of the high-stakes role-playing between another pair of siblings in Jean Genet's The Maids, that the play really takes off. Morris -- wearing his newly bought suit jacket, boots, and hat -- takes on the role of the privileged white man, while Zach remains himself. Through their actions, Fugard is able to address the complex social conditions that has favored Morris in life, and the mixture of guilt and resentment that both men feel towards each other as a result.

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