AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Athol Fugard
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

South Africa has abolished its odious apartheid policies, but when playwright Athol Fugard acted in the first performance of his "Blood Knot" in 1961, apartheid's racial discrimination was still the law of the land. Fugard, who is white, is credited with helping to abolish apartheid with his powerful plays about its effects on individuals.

Set in the village of Korsten near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in the early '60s, "Blood Knot" is a two-man play about two brothers. One of them, Zachariah (Steven Anthony Jones), has black skin. The other, Morris (Jack Willis), is so light-skinned that he can pass for white -- a distinct advantage in that time and place. Morris has been away for some time, but he has recently returned to live with Zach in his one-room shack. Zach has an exhausting job, while Morris stays home, doing the cooking and cleaning and making sure that Zach has hot water to soak his feet when he returns from work.

The brothers follow the same daily schedule, dictated by the alarm clock that Morris sets several times a day to tell when it's time to eat and when it's time to go to bed, etc. Their lives change when Zach says he wants a woman. Morris doesn't quite approve, but he says that Zach can get a woman pen pal. Morris helps the illiterate Zach with the correspondence. Then they learn that the woman is white. Any relationship with her would be unlawful. When the woman says she's coming to their town and would like to meet Zach, the brothers' concern mounts. Morris wants Zach to end the connection right away, but Zach wants Morris to meet the woman in his place. Zach even uses the money that they had been saving to buy a farm and instead buys Morris a fine suit of clothes and accessories. Morris dons the clothes, and the brothers begin role-playing a game that veers dangerously close to violence near the end of Act 2.

They also play a game at the end of Act 1, but it's a more enjoyable one as they re-enact the way they pretended they were driving a car when they were boys. Still another game involves ridding themselves of the shadow cast over them by their late mother.

The set by Alexander V. Nichols features a wall of corrugated metal, probably tin, in place of a curtain. Before each act it serves as a screen for projections depicting scenes during apartheid. It then rises to reveal Zach's shack, defined by skeletal walls of old lumber. Kathy A. Perkins' lighting is generally effective, but it seems overdone in the car ride scene. The costumes are by Sandra Woodall, the sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Music composed and recorded by Tracy Chapman is used mainly when the brothers recall their mother.

Willis and Jones, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, are superb. They convey the unbreakable bond of blood that both brothers feel as well as the tension generated by the difference in their complexions. In August the two actors spent two weeks in South Africa to understand the culture and develop an ear for the accents. Their time appears to have been well spent.

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