Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot receives an important revisit from director Matthew Xia at the Orange Tree Theatre in a tender and angry navigation of racial politics that remains relevant 58 years after Fugard’s own performance.
Half-brothers Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) and Morrie (Nathan McMullen) share a small shack in apartheid-era Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Morrie, who is light-skinned with an education, returned to Zach’s home and obsesses over plans of a self-made future with his brother. Zach is dark-skinned, working long days to support both of them. With Morrie as scribe, Zach begins a pen-pal relationship with a young white woman. This relationship spirals into a poisonous game of role play between brothers, in which race, violence, and colourism crash into one another.
The spare, intimate set, designed by Basia Binkowska, draws the audience close into the house of Zach and Morrie, although the ripples of light across the floor, especially at the dramatic end, seem superfluous to the already impactful language and performance in Xia’s production.
Both McMullen and Ssebandeke take on a heavy burden in Blood Knot, but do so successfully, establishing a tense but trusting relationship between brothers as well as strong, individual characterizations. McMullen’s Morrie is at once anxious and ordered, like a kettle about to brew over. Ssebandeke’s Zach is thoughtful and energetic, with an incredible physical presence on the stage. Perhaps his strongest moment comes in the second act when Zach dons the suit he has purchased for Morrie, alighting on stage with grace and invoking his mother’s presence.
Indeed, the second act itself is a punch to the gut, picking up pace and energy, and leaving the audience unsettled — an appropriate “conclusion” to a play that dives into the ugly, bruising emotional effects of racism.