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Review: 'Blood Knot' is strong, challenging theater

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 7, 2008 - This week when Americans have elected their first president with a black skin, one can't imagine a play that resonates more powerfully than "Blood Knot." It runs tonight through Sunday evening at the Upstream Theatre, 501 North Grand Boulevard in Grand Center.

South Africa's master playwright Athol Fugard's breathtakingly powerful but nuanced tale focuses on two mixed-race blood brothers. One's skin is black. The other is pale enough to pass for white.

The two men, who are greatly devoted to each other, were raised side by side by their mother under the oppressive South African Apartheid government. Both carry the mandatory identity cards called passbooks that restrict them to being "coloured," of mixed race.

Philip Boehm, company founder and artistic director, made a brilliant choice in producing - and directing - "Blood Knot" at this pivotal moment in American history. Upstream Theatre says its goal is "to move you and to move you to think." That's exactly what it does in this production.

Audience thinking was so obvious Thursday night that, in the second act, audience members' mouths were agape in row after row. The audience gave a great gift to any actor: Applause came only after a few seconds of rapt silence.

Though the play runs almost two and a half hours, many in the audience hung out in the foyer afterward - saying they were rather rung out. It was as though they needed to steady themselves from all this thinking about race and get their "land legs" back before going outdoors.

Many expressed to friends, even to strangers, their visceral reaction. Several talked about their exhaustion not only what was on stage but what was spinning through their minds as they watched the play 48 hours after this nation had elected a mixed-race man who identifies as black as its president.

The story seems simple, snapshots of a several evenings in the routine lives of two brothers who cannot afford entertainment beyond their dreamy imaginations. The language is spare, sometimes poetic with occasional words in the Afrikaans language.

The two-actor show gains intensity by taking place in a one-room, tin-roofed shack that the brothers share in the non-white restricted area of Korsten just outside the playwright's hometown of Port Elizabeth in South Africa.

Zach, played by J. Samuel Davis, is the brother with the black skin who stands or stoops all day in his boring job at the gate of a whites-only park. White visitors act as if the black man does not exist.

Morrie, played by John Pierson, is the pale-skin brother who returned to the family's Korsten shack one year before and apparently is not employed though he cares for the home. He shops and cooks and saves to one day own a farm where they could make a life together amid green space and butterflies.

As the play begins, Zach's yearning for a woman interferes with their plans and turns their measured life upside down. Zach awakens to how pale Morrie really is and generously challenges Morrie to take advantage and "pass." The brothers play a dangerous game.

Both actors are superb in their roles. Davis plays the practical Zach appropriately broad and stylishly. Pierson is properly nuanced as the reserve, sometimes secretive, deeply respectful brother.

Director Philip Boehm encourages both actors to be rich in gestures and movement, which amplify the play's language. That movement, sometimes with no dialogue, underlines the great devotion that Morrie has for Zach. Boehm underlines the occasional merriment and humor that allow the audience moments to breathe.

Set designer Scott C. Neale has built the brothers' one-room hut of recycled junk with elaborate detail that screams how poor, neat and resourceful the two men are. Anna Blair's props above each man's bed and on the recycled heating stove are as evocative as any in a Renaissance portrait. Only the gilt-edged Bible is a thing of quality.

John Armstrong's lighting design hauntingly shows the dull routine of night to day. Michele Siler costume designs add to the sense of infliction.

Upstream Theatre, a professional theater with Equity actors in its fourth season, is presenting the play in the city's newest theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center in the former Woolworth building, a landmark at the northwest corner of Grand and Olive boulevards.

The venue's history provides a layer of irony to this production. African-Americans were not served at the Woolworth dimestore's lunch counter until black and white St. Louisans picketed in the mid-1960s. Recently gutted, the building opened this fall transformed as a community arts center with two performance spaces - one for theater, one for cabaret - and Craft Alliance's second art gallery with classrooms. Kranzberg Arts center shares the building with Big Brothers and Sisters, a stalwart organization that motivates and lifts children out of poverty.

Upstream's cast and production staff have taken this searing work of genius with its hard truths and forcefully shot it out to pierce hearts. One can only wonder when the Nobel Prize judges will get around to giving Fugard, now 76, the Nobel Prize for Literature for his amazing body of work about inhumane restrictions based on skin color.

The basics

What: "Blood Knot," produced by Upstream Theatre
When: Nov. 7 & 8 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
Where: Kranzberg Arts Center black box theater, 501 North Grand Boulevard in Grand Center
For information: 314-863-4999 or  www.brownpapertickets.com/event/45714
Patricia Rice, a veteran journalist, reported from South Africa in two visits when the country suffered under Apartheid. Contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

Patricia Rice special to the Beacon