Re: Fear and loathing in Fugard’s Blood Knot
I’ve been sitting on this letter for a few days now, searching for the right words.
I have just watched Blood Knot, an anti-apartheid play by South African playwright Athol Fugard, presented at the Orange Tree Theatre 58 years after it was first staged in Johannesburg. Within and without those years there has been so much history…history that informs the play and shapes the real world that it reflects, but it is also more history than I can contain in this letter, with roots from as early as the 1400s.
The reason I have been troubled is not because of its historicity, but because it sadly reflects the ugliness of the world today. The prickly period of apartheid may be over but all over the world, the colour of one’s skin is still the cause for discrimination and violence. A rose by any other name is still colourism, it seems.
The play centres on the symbiotic relationship between two brothers. Morrie (Nathan McMullen) is the light-skinned one, the one that “passes” as white. Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) is the darker-skinned brother, the one who the world treats differently, because of the colour of his skin.
Penpal, you must think it odd that I am describing them in these terms, but I promise you it is because the play does not let me forget it. If it helps, Morrie is also the more delicate one, the one who reads and writes and plans for the future for the both of them. Zach is the one who, after a day of physical and emotional strain from his daily job, is boisterous and petulant and charming.
Their relationship is tender and loving, but also tetchy and pulsating in a way that reminds me of other brotherly pairs. Vladimir and Estragon. Lennie and George. Cain and Abel. Jesus and Judas. I think you see where I am going.
And then there is Ethel, Zach’s innocent friend-by-correspondence who is sourced via newsprint. She remains unseen except by way of a mailed black-and-white photograph, but ultimately becomes a representation of the big bad outside world when it turns out that she is white.
There is an incredibly terrifying scene where Morrie puts on a suit and slowly starts transforming into a white man saying the most horrible things to Zach, which turns physical. It is a hard scene to watch, not because what he is doing is monstrous (and it is), but because of how easy it is for human to flip into monster, Stanford Prison Experiment-style. That suit slayed me. It hung on a hanger like a spectre. Like a man.
It reminded me of a visual from An Octoroon which I watched at The National last year – a photograph of a man who had been lynched. I asked myself now, as I did then, why suffering has be staged, at all. Why the “N” word must be uttered. Why the violence. Who is it for? As a person of colour (specifically, a brown Southeast Asian) I could barely watch and hear these things.
I feel a sense of rage and outrage. And while it’s easy to direct that outrage outwards – to question why it is necessary to stage the play at all, when it says and portrays some very problematic things, I realise it is not exactly a helpful way to think. And if I am not in any way African, do I have the right to feel outraged, at all?
McMullen and Ssebandeke turn in powerful performances, fully inhabiting their physically demanding roles as not just brother and brother, but later on, as oppressor and oppressed. The sepia tone of the set by Basia Bińkowska, all metal and wood and boiling pot of soup, underscored the quiet desperation of these two men trying to survive in a world designed to keep them down. The lighting by Ciarán Cunningham and sound by Xana were most effective in the play’s quieter, darker moments, working together to power the powder keg of a play.
What I felt director Matthew Xia did admirably was play with the boxed-in confines of their too-small metallic house. When Morrie finally ex/implodes, McMullen and Ssebandeke physically break out of the fourth wall for the first time, suggesting that the hateful world expands outwards, towards the audience, towards all of us, today. It is their world spinning off its axis and crashing into ours.
I think of the audience there in Richmond-based Orange Tree Theatre, predominantly white and middle-aged, and I wonder why their reactions seemed louder and bigger, than mine were. Or maybe I was just made more aware because of the in-a-round setting of the theatre, which meant I spent as much time watching my fellow members of the audience as I did watching the events of the play.
I struggle to reconcile how I feel. Fugard is a known opposer of the apartheid, so surely, he is in the right of all of this. The writer in me marvels at his mastery of the craft. His drawn-out style is perhaps a tad dated, but he cleverly turns what is essentially a 1960s version of a Tinder courtship into a devastating study of race and privilege.
The truth is, my dear Penpal, that I don’t know why I am still so disturbed. Or maybe I do. Maybe I am just angry that this really excellent piece of theatre won’t solve how terrible the world can be. That we still need Fugard’s words to warn us of such horror.
We like to think ourselves as children of a better age. That we have learned from the follies of our predecessors. I fear that we are worse, wrapped up in better packaging that only looks shiny from far. But more than that, perhaps I loathe to think of what is to come.
I am not sure when you will receive this, but if I could pray for a miracle, I hope it will be in a different, and better, time.
Yours as ever,
Blood Knot is on at the Orange Tree Theatre till 20th April. More info here.