Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” now at Pillsbury House Theatre, is a hard play to watch. Set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1960, 12 years into apartheid, it’s filled with hopelessness, bitterness and brutality. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel, just more tunnel.
But it’s a play we should see. Because while apartheid ended in 1994, at least officially, the racism that created it is still alive and getting bolder by the minute. In a recent viral video, a white woman at a Mississippi campground orders a black couple to leave. She’s holding a gun.
In “Blood Knot,” two brothers, sons of different fathers, live together in a one-room shack. Dark-skinned Zachariah works as a gatekeeper at a park for whites. His job is to stand there and shoo black children away. Light-skinned Morris takes care of their shabby home, prepares their meager meals, and has a footbath ready for Zachariah at the end of each long day.
Morris also manages the money Zachariah earns. He’s squirreling some away, rand by rand, so he and Zachariah can one day buy a small two-man farm and be self-sufficient. Picking their own fruit, raising chickens, chasing baboons out of their trees – this is Morris’ dream.
Morris proposes a more economical alternative: Zachariah can get a woman pen pal. Because Zachariah can’t read or write, Morris will write his letters for him. They write to a young woman named Edith who turns out to be white, with a boots-wearing policeman for a brother, and plans to visit Zachariah soon.
More worldly Morris recognizes the danger they’re in. Zachariah sees it as an opportunity. If he, a black man, can’t meet Edith in person, then white-looking Morris can. But Morris will have to dress the part. He’ll need a suit, a shirt, a tie, a handkerchief for his pocket – the whole white gentleman’s get-up. That’s how they’ll use the money Morris has been saving.
Morris’ decision to go along reaches back to the play-acting the brothers did as children. Only this time they’re not kids pretending to drive an old car rusting by the side of the road. They’re adults. Morris was away for many years; maybe he’s done this before? He takes to it quickly. For Zachariah, this is already his life. As each man goes deeper into his role, the play takes a turn into violence.
So, yes, “Blood Knot” is hard to watch. It should be seen for its historical significance, though a few bits are problematically out of date. At one point, Zachariah describes an encounter with a woman that sounds like rape. For him, it’s a fond memory, and Morris says only, “Talking helps, doesn’t it?”
The play should be seen at Pillsbury House for its production and its cast: James A. Williams as Zachariah and Stephen Yoakam as Morris. The two great actors have been friends for years, and they trust each other to play their parts to the fullest, even the ugliest, most shocking moments. It’s like watching two lions in a room. Joseph Stanley’s set – a hovel made of corrugated metal and scraps, surrounded by trash – concentrates the characters’ frustration and rage in a small space.
Marion McClinton originally signed on as director. When illness interfered, Stephen DiMenna took over, with Carlyle Brown as assistant director and McClinton as creative consultant. Michael Wangen did the lighting, Katharine Horowitz the sound and Trevor Bowen the costumes.
At two and a half hours, with intermission, “Blood Knot” is an investment in powerful theater. There are parts we’ll never forget. Like Yoakam preparing for Williams’ return from work, making sure everything is ready, whistling softly to himself. And Williams’ shape-shifting into a subservient black, mouthing “Ja, Baas” and “Forgive me please, Baas” in response to Yoakam’s cruel insults. And Yoakam pulling on the socks that are part of his gentleman’s ensemble, each an unimaginable luxury.
“Blood Knot” continues at Pillsbury House Theatre through June 16. FMI and tickets ($25 or pick-your-price).
Opens tonight (Friday, May 31) at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “Rafiki.” Winner of an Audience Choice Award at MSPIFF, “Rafiki” (Friend) is the story of two young women, daughters of political rivals, who met in Nairobi and fall in love. Wanuri Kahlu’s film was banned in Kenya, then invited to Cannes – the first film from Kenya to be included in the festival’s official lineup. (Earlier this week, Kenya’s high court upheld the country’s antigay laws.) FMI including trailer, times and tickets. Ends June 6.
Saturday in St. Anthony Park: 50th Annual St. Anthony Park Arts Festival. A small but mighty (and carefully curated) show of consistently high-quality art. Created to support the neighborhood’s historic Carnegie branch library, it features around 70 artists, a community area, plant and book sales, art activities, good food and music. At Como and Carter Avenues in St. Paul. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. FMI.
Sunday at Icehouse: Northing Album Release with Realtree. An early evening of new music and improvisation by area musicians. Northing is an unconventional chamber quintet – two saxophones, two trombones and drums – led by trombonist and composer Nick Syman. They’ll play music from “Hill Spell,” their debut release, out on the local collective label Shifting Paradigm Records. The equally unconventional Realtree – cello, B-flat clarinet, cornet, laptop, guitar – will improvise and play music from Noah Ophoven-Baldwin’s “Splendor Falls on Everything Around.” 6 p.m. FMI. $10 cover at the door.
Sunday along Lyndale Ave. S. in Minneapolis: Open Streets Lyndale. Turns out it’s really fun to walk, bike, skate and mosey down the middle of otherwise busy streets, sharing space with families, dogs and strollers. It’s like you’re getting away with something, but without risking death. Open Streets is now in its ninth season; last year, 45,000 people attended the Lyndale event. The street becomes a public square, with booths staffed by community organizations and businesses, live performances, art projects and other activities. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. from West 22nd to West 54th – more than 30 blocks closed to motorized traffic. FMI including dates and places for more Open Streets events.
Sunday at Crooners: Songs and Stories with Rex Reed. Yes, that Rex Reed: New York film critic, columnist, author (eight books), actor, lecturer, raconteur, legend. And now singer. Opinionated, voluble and an endless font of stories, Reed has created a show that’s “a lot of music, a lot of talk.” He’ll cover songs made famous by Doris Day, Mel Tormé, Harry Belafonte, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and more (all people he knew personally), and songs by famous songwriters including Ira Gershwin and André Previn. Soprano and Rex Reed fan Maria Jette is shocked there are still tickets available. (Note: not many.) In the Dunsmore Room, with Tedd Firth at the piano. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30).
Monday at Crooners: David Berkman. The celebrated New York-based pianist has a new solo project in the works: “Tunes and Improvisations: The Music of John Coltrane and Pete Seeger.” These aren’t two artists we would normally include in the same thought or sentence, but both have influenced Berkman as a performer and a composer. In general, whatever Berkman does is worth hearing. 6 p.m.; doors at 4:30. FMI and tickets ($15). This show will be taped by Essential Sessions Studios as part of a live performance video.