You get right inside a man when you can wrap up in the smell of him, but can you ever truly get into the skin of another man? Even if you are his brother? Opening as a part of “South Africa: Then and Now”— the current repertory cycle in Mosaic Theater Company’s second season— Blood Knot, by Athol Fugard is an emotionally eviscerating experience of brotherhood in Apartheid-ruled South Africa. Directed by Joy Zinoman, this powerful, albeit convoluted drama, explores and exploits the fraternal bond among men, challenging the concepts of racial identity in the process.
Because Athol Fugard’s is so strikingly well-composed, addressing such heavy topics, adding a layer of symbolic superfluity to it with the creation of a shadow character— known only as Woman (Anika Harden)— detracts from the show’s impacting potential on an emotional and cathartic level. Director Joy Zinoman’s intent is clear; the woman is meant to represent the shared mother of Morris and Zachariah. Featuring her in the doorway before the show begins and again before the second act resumes adds an unnecessarily ghostly presence that negates the focus from what’s really being presented, as does the character’s presence during Zachariah’s powerful dream address to his dead mother. Zinoman could have better served the production by excluding this symbolism, which smacks heavily of overkill to what Fugard has already presented quite clearly.
While Fugard’s concepts and overall messages are clear, his writing is in desperate need of tightening as there are a great many places, despite Zinoman’s best efforts where the rising action and overall progression of the plot seem to shudder to a halt and idle. Providing balance to these moments that drag are the swift scenic changes, uplifted by the musical creations of Composer Mongezi Ntaka. Fabricating a culturally distinctive soundtrack, Ntaka’s music sets an appropriate tone of atmosphere when it comes to recognizing the play’s placement in time and space.
Set Designer Debra Booth provides a visual masterpiece with her simplistic yet intricately detailed one-roomed rundown shack. Distressed, derelict, and all but on the verge of collapse, Booth’s scenic design creates a picture of the meager living quarters which the characters’ share. Further attention to the setting’s intricate nuances is provided by Properties Mistress Michelle Elwyn, honing in on the antiquated look of little things like the foot-soak salt boxes and Morris’ alarm clock. Threaded together with the sartorial selection of Costume Designer Brandee Mathies, who captures the essence of the polished white gentleman in all the various pieces of the “going out suit” and contrasts it strongly against the rugged and work-worn threads that the characters wear in every other scene of the show, the production’s aesthetic is firmly rooted in the reality of Apartheid South Africa. The design team has well and truly established the appearance and overall feel of the “Then” in the “Then and Now” part of their repertory.
South African is a difficult dialect to present consistently whilst still being understood to an audience unused to hearing it. Dialect Coach Kim Bey does exceptional work with both performers to capture the correct sound without overcomplicating its ability to be understood. Drawing a clear line between dialects split across the races, Bey’s work is essential to the authenticity of the piece and is well worthy of commending not only for its accuracy but for its fluent consistency. Also deserving of praise for accuracy is Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter, whose blocking of scenes at the end of the second act draws forth a disturbing and visceral response from the audience. Without going too readily into detail for fear of spoiling what unfolds, it can simply be said that Hunter’s pacing when it comes to fighting and brutality is exacting and because of that, the scenes are greatly intensified.
Morris (Tom Story) and Zachariah (Nathan Hinton) are two distinctive personalities as opposite as night and day— everything from the way they perceive the world down to the very color of their skin, which is Fugard’s driving intention behind the piece. Story and Hinton share an exceptional on-stage chemistry, which really flourishes throughout the performance, exploding as the play rolls into its shocking penultimate scene. The dynamic that implodes between them in that moment is a testament to how carefully crafted the rest of their relationship is constructed from the show’s opening through to its conclusion. Story and Hinton give and take from one another in scenes leading up to that harrowing moment, which carries on for what seems like an eternity but in reality is but a few seconds.
Hinton, as the undereducated Zachariah, tackles the role with rigorous aplomb. The childlike simplicity with which he digests the most basic pleasures of being a man— the idea of having woman— is delightful. Hinton could all but fly away like Peter Pan over his elated happy thoughts of Ethel once the pen-pal exchange gets underway; this is well represented in both his physicality and the unending broad grin that streaks out over his face as his eyes light up in discussion over the matter. Hinton possesses a well-timed temper too, delivering outbursts and terse moments in equal opposition to the more jovial and humorous sections of his text. The strong emotional connection which Hinton displays to the character’s situation is moving, particularly during the dream address to the absent mother character.
Story, as the neurotically wound, albeit pragmatic, Morris, is equally as impressive with his character portrayal though for a great many reasons. It’s the quirks and ticks that he laces into his character development that catch the attention of the audience; Story leans heavily on formula and structure along with the rhythm of delivery rather than a free-flowing emotional tether to Morris to fully articulate him in this production. There are deeply disturbing moments of his presentation, particularly when he starts subtly hinting at the desires of his own questionable sexuality, which may be intentionally misconstrued as unnatural given the context in which he presents them. Delivering a formidable stage presence, Story both villainizes and victimizes his character, making for a most dynamic portrayal.
The subject is not for the weak of heart, but then again neither are most instances of the world’s history. It is an evocative play with a heavy message, which takes quite a bit of digesting, though definitely worth exploring and experiencing this season.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Blood Knot plays through April 30, 2017 in repertory with A Human Being Died That Night as a part of South Africa: Then and Now with Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center— 1333 H Street NE in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 399- 7993 ext. 2 or purchase them online.