On an interactive video display in the spacious, lively upstairs lobby of the Signature Theatre’s brand-new multi-theater complex, you can register your feelings about the place (from a multiple-choice menu) and take a photograph of yourself to add to those on the screen. The Pershing Square Signature Center, to give its full official title, offers a vision of theater as community, a place where everyone belongs and everyone can feel at ease.
With its gentle, bare-bones informality, the center gives off a more hopeful aura than any New York theater has conveyed in ages. Its multiple performing spaces, all easily strolled to off the lobby, are flanked by an uncrowded bar, a bookstore/souvenir stand with no loud hawking, and a friendly concierge desk in lieu of a box office. It feels like a place where you might actually enjoy yourself, contemplatively, without the manic insistence and noise that are so often Broadway’s hallmark.
With immaculately ironic aptness, Signature has chosen to inaugurate the center’s first season with a work from the past that depicts community as nightmare, conveying the unbearable difficulties people create for one another while struggling to live together in amity. As in past years, each Signature season focuses on a single playwright, reviving key earlier works and unveiling new ones. This year’s playwright is Athol Fugard; the opening production, in the Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, is the work that launched his worldwide career just over 50 years ago: Blood Knot.
An allegory cunningly disguised as a realistic drama, Blood Knot, now getting its fifth major New York production, has the tenacity and grit of a work built to survive. The central metaphor is simple: Two brothers share a house. Zachariah (Colman Domingo) is black; Morris (Scott Shepherd) is white. Zach, who does the heavy labor that earns their income, lives for simple, immediate pleasures. Morrie, who has been away many years and only recently returned, keeps the house in order, handles the money, and plans for the future. Unlike Zach, he can read and write. Name the house South Africa, call the two men by their race, and it’s all about apartheid.
But it’s not so simple, because Fugard cagily dodges the simplistic. Morrie’s awareness of the brothers’ blood kinship, as the title implies, is what keeps him there. His efforts to order and plan are an ongoing challenge to Zach, whose persistent push in the opposite direction brings on the traumatic climax, when we finally get to see the misery Zach endures in the outside world—and the inner agony that has driven Morrie to shun it, relinquishing the power over Zach that his skin color could give him.
Using realistic details, Fugard weaves a dense texture of ideas onto this spare framework, showing the men’s contrasting approaches to everything—manners, money, memory, meaning. An unspoken question about God and the purpose of human existence hangs over the play like a noncommittal gray sky. Underneath, tactfully also left unspoken, pulses another question, about sex. Is Morrie’s lack of interest in women an interest in Zach? Or is his brotherly concern simply guilt? When he reads the Bible while Zach is asleep, he contemplates Cain and Abel, not David and Jonathan.
Constantly sliding between naturalism and Beckettian abstraction, Blood Knot is an actors’ fun fair of possibilities. Its first Off-Broadway production, with James Earl Jones and J.D. Cannon, in 1964, gave it the fevered tension of a political thriller, shot through with noirish longing. On Broadway in 1988, when Fugard himself, as Morrie, and Zakes Mokae, as Zach, re-created the roles they had originated in Johannesburg in 1961, 27 years earlier, the play seemed like a restoration of some ancient, hieratic ritual.
Nothing could seem less ancient than Fugard’s new staging, sharp-edged and freehanded in its steps outside reality. The divergent experiences his two actors bring—Domingo from musicals, Shepherd from the Wooster Group—stretch, rather than shut down, the script’s naturalistic surface. Domingo invests Zach’s assertive presence with an extravagant panoply of vocal gymnastics, from suspicious grunts to roars of delight; Shepherd, acrid and earnest-eyed, appears to be having his insides devoured by some long-felt hurt. Can these antitheses become a community? Watch the Signature’s new space for developments.