Sunday, March 4, 2012

Blood Knot (NYC)

I went to see Blood Knot by Athol Fugard at Signature Theatre last night. So… Ok, my normal blogs focus much more on the shows themselves and then jump into what I think about art as a whole because of it. This one has less of the show part.

What did I think of the show? I think it was well written. I think that the actors both did a good job at creating characters. I think the set was amazing. I think both actors did well, except, I think one of them was horribly miscast.

This blog is really about two very specific things that I realized last night. The first one: Ok, I am all for color blind casting, as a general rule, I am. Except that if the show is about race… then I think, perhaps, that race should be part of the casting process. For instance, it is necessary for Othello (Othello) to be an outsider because of his skin in order for the plot to progress. It is necessary for Aaron (Titus Andronicus) to be an outsider because of his skin for the plot to progress. It is necessary for Hally to be white and Sam and Willy to be black in Master Harold and the Boys. The Help would not have been the best movie for colorblind casting. I can keep going, but I think you get the picture. On the other hand, I have seen brilliant productions of Cymbeline, Romeo and Juliet, Alls Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Balm in Gilead, and The Importance of Being Earnst, in which only the talent of the actor and not the color of the skin determined casting. (I have also seen an Othello not be as good as the actors in it were capable of because Cassio and Othello were both the same race… that’s a huge problem if you know anything about the structure of the show or understand why Iago is able to provoke Othello’s jealousy of Cassio – without being an outsider, Othello reasons for such strong jealous reactions are not as strong. ) (And yes, I realize I keep saying outsider, that’s on purpose. I would have loved to have seen Patrick Stewart’s Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre in 1997. It has been hailed as being the “photo negative” casting, but I think the truth is, as long as Othello is visually the outsider, the play works.) Anyway, my point being this – I love color blind casting, unless you are talking about a show about race.

Blood Knot is about race. Specifically about two brothers who grew up in, and currently reside in, Port Elizabeth South Africa circa 1960.

And here is where the two parts of my thoughts begin to collide. I actually do my best to walk into shows with no knowledge of what is about to happen. I do not read the programs until I am on the train ride home. I do not read dramaturgical boards until after the show. I try to not even read reviews until after I have seen the show. Why, you may ask? Because I want to know how good a job this production has done telling the story in their way. My feelings are this, if you have to know something about the show before you see it in order to understand it, then I think that the story-tellers are not doing their job at telling their story. Don’t get me wrong, I am not Brecht. I do not believe there is only one story and as a director I have done something wrong if every person in my audience didn’t get the same story; I am merely saying that the general story needs to be told. And if I need “director’s notes” or a “dramaturgical board” in order to understand some key component of the play, then there is a missing element of the basic story telling of the play. That is not to say I don’t find them useful, I do. (That is why I read them after the show) But there is a difference in enrichment and necessity.

Can anyone see where this is going yet?

Blood Knot is the story of two South African brothers: one light enough “to pass” and one who is to dark “to pass”. And this is where it gets tricky. Scott Shepherd was cast as the lighter skinned brother. Shepherd, who is a wonderful actor in his own right, is, by all appearance, a stereo-typical Irish man. He has pale skin, pale red hair, and light eyes. And while the script keeps referring to the two men as brothers, I was wildly unclear on that point before I read the dramaturgical board at intermission. Partially because not only does the script refer to them as brothers, but also it has them arguing about who their mother was and what she was like – leading me, the person who walked into the show knowing nothing, who walked into the show to see a story unfold, to question their actual relationship. Furthermore, the accents were so far different that it didn’t even sound like the two grew up in the same house.

So, at intermission, I broke one of my long held rules, and read the dramaturgical board, that explained to me that, indeed, the two men were brothers, the light skinned brother was self educated and traveled (thus the different accent) and the dark skinned brother had stayed in Port Elizabeth, couldn’t read, and was very blunt. Suddenly everything I had seen in the first act made sense. As, in fact, everything I saw in the second act made much more sense than it would have otherwise too.

Here’s the thing. I was irritated that I had to read the board to understand in the first place. I feel like the story wasn’t told. And maybe that was a problem with the script, or maybe it was a problem with the acting, or maybe it was a problem with the direction, or maybe it was a problem with the casting – to tell the truth, I’m not sure. What I am sure about though, is that I missed out on a pretty key part of the story, like the part that was essential to understanding why what was happening on stage was important.

So I guess what this show firmed up in my mind is that I believe theatre is about story telling. And I believe the heart of good story telling is the ability to do it in a way that the audience will understand. And theatre is the medium. The actors, their bodies in space, the playwright’s words, the set, props, lights, sound, costumes, and the direction is palette. And if extra words are necessary in order to understand your story, then you haven’t told a very good story in the first place.


  1. Glad you posted about this show. I saw this show also and felt exactly the same way. I left the the theater going... Wha?

    1. Yes. I was tweeted back in response to my blog post (I love how responsive Signature Theatre is) about it. I was told that many audience appreciate the deeper understanding that a dramaturgical board can bring. I refrained from responded - oh I agree, they can offer a deeper understanding, however, if they are *necessary* to understand the show... there is a problem...

      Understand that I mostly LOVE what Signature does, they are probably my favorite single company in NYC. This show though, did not live up to its normally high bar.

      Thanks for reading!