… Who wears the suit ?….

Set in South Africa in 1961, during apartheid, Blood Knot tells the story of two brothers, one who looks White and the other Black. They’re sons of one black mother each with a different father and, as is said of the one who looks completely White, “It happens.”

They were treated differently from the moment of birth.  How do we know? The older got the Biblical “Black” name of Zachariah, while the younger. born looking White, was given a “White” name: Morris.

Other contrasts are that Morris is literate and speaks with a White South African accent, and Zachariah is illiterate and speaks with a Black South African accent.  (We know the two were brought up together and were very close as boys, so while — sure — one can figure out reasons for these contrasts, they remain unconvincing.)

They’ve been living together in Zachariah’s ramshackle shack in Korsten, a Black neighborhood on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.  Morris, who’s been a drifter while passing as White, returned to Korsten and to Zachariah about a year ago with a plan:  putting money aside regularly from Zachariah’s wages, he’s saving up for them to buy a farm together — one thinks of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Zachariah, who works at a hard job with a mean boss, and that gives him painful feet, longs to go out for a good time like he used to before Morris installed his dour regime of saving for the future and praying.  Most of all Zachariah longs for “woman.”  To keep him on the straight and narrow while letting him gratify his “woman” fantasies, Morris sets illiterate Zachariah up with a “pen-pal”, a girl in a distant city Zachariah can fantasize about all he wants — until it looks as though the girl is going to come to Port Elizabeth and look for him.  It’s fascinating to watch Zachariah’s strength of personality blast through his dependency on Morris for the writing and reading of exchanged the letters.

Since the pen-pal girl turns out to be White and Zachariah is Black (though she doesn’t know it), the pains and ironies of race relations under apartheid emerge within this oh-so-human correspondence. The pen-pal relationship, with all its room for deception, is filled with humor, pathos and keen suspense as we worry that Zachariah’s romantic desire may lead to a tragic end.  Blood Knot has a terrific Act I.

Act II;  good-bye Lennie and George, hello Cain and Abel.  The basically we’re-in-it-together relationship in Act I is replaced in Act II by raw jealous conflicts between the brothers and by extension between Blacks and Whites.  Once the girl is out of the picture, the men are left with the fancy clothes — featuring an electric blue suit — that Morris had bought for Zachariah when they thought she might actually appear.  Morris dons the suit and — clothes maketh the man — turns gradually into a kind of mean White overbearing, plutocrat overseer, brutalizing his Black brother (supposedly all in a game.).

But with these events, telling as they may be, the action no longer emerges from the characters, but appears arbitrarily invented to make the author’s point.  Zachariah becomes more sophisticated and better spoken, and at the same time more servile than the character we’ve come to know, all in service to the author’s message, that is:  brutal conflict between brothers is in our blood, and we are all brothers under the skin. 

From a rich human drama, the play turns into a schematic parable.  I haven’t seen this kind of programmatic slippage in other Fugard plays; perhaps it’s here because Blood Knot was one of first plays (1961), though revised and re-titled slightly in 1987.  Colman Domingo is powerful and moving as Zachariah in Act I where he has a genuine role to play.  Scott Shepherd is a good foil to him but never as convincing because the role as written is more wobbly.

Among the reasons to see Blood Knot are to learn more about South Africa under apartheid and glimpse the effects on individual lives, and to see the young Fugard finding his way as an important playwright.

Blood Knot  plays at SignatureTheatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Click for a review of Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, World Premier.