Blood Knot finds the frayed places of brotherly bonds 

Tom Key and Kenny Leon star in the apartheid-era drama

It can be challenge for present-day audiences, especially younger ones, to put Athol Fugard’s anti-apartheid play Blood Knot into context. The United States and South Africa both currently have presidents of color, but Fugard debuted the two-actor play in 1961, even before Nelson Mandela began his 27-year prison term on Robben Island. At the time an act of political defiance, Blood Knot illustrates the pernicious effects of institutional racism even as it insists on the existence of a brotherhood of man that transcends skin color.

David H. Bell directed Blood Knot for Theatrical Outfit in 1998, and this summer, the company and True Colors Theatre have teamed up to bring back the production’s two stars, Tom Key and Kenny Leon (the respective theaters' artistic directors). The 1998 production crackled in the close quarters of 14th Street Playhouse’s second theater, while the current one, directed by the Alliance Theatre’s Susan V. Booth, proceeds at more of a low simmer (based on viewing the final afternoon preview before the play’s official premiere that night).

Blood Knot casts Key and Leon as Morris and Zachariah, two brothers who share a mother, although Morris is light-skinned enough to pass for white. While Zachariah works all day, Morris remains a virtual shut-in, keeping house and saving his brothers’ pay to buy a farm. The two spend their evenings as virtual prisoners in a shanty-town shack, which Leslie Taylor’s hauntingly detailed set suggests was torn out of a block of Port Elizabeth and dropped into the Balzer Theatre.

Morris’ plans preclude Zachariah from dating, implying less about economics than Morris’ wish to keep his brother to himself. Morris suggests Zachariah find female companionship in the form of a pen pal, a detail that seemed anachronistic a decade or two ago, but finds renewed metaphorical value in the era of chat rooms and Craigslist. When the siblings realize that Zachariah’s new “well-developed” lady friend is white — and has a policeman brother — tensions disrupt their delicate equilibrium and ruin Morris’ carefully maintained routine.

Fugard remains one of the world’s great living playwrights, worthy of the Nobel Prize. But Blood Knot is an early work, and the brothers’ elaborate role-playing games and Morris’ habit of reading Bible verses feel contrived and heavy-handed today. At times Leon’s sing-song delivery as Zachariah comes across as condescending, but he remains such a charismatic actor that it’s a pleasure to see him back on an Atlanta stage. Despite Leon’s national success, he’s such an influential presence in Atlanta theater that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t acted in nearly five years.

The draggy first act serves as a slow fuse, moving inexorably to the resentments and harsh feelings that explode in the second act. In one of the most unnerving touches, the brothers discover that their memories of their mother don’t match up, casting doubts as to whether they’re even related. Key captures Morris’ ambivalence with the concept of “passing” as white, proving both delighted and horrified by the implications. Key’s shaken final speech affirms that the brothers indeed have a “blood knot” that binds them, but even as Morris uses the words to reassure Zachariah, he sounds only half-convinced of their truth.

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