The American Players Theatre stirred nationwide controversy when it cast white actor James DeVita as the biracial character Morris in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot.
Early reviews questioned the casting choice and leading theatrical groups, including the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, spoke out against it.
James DeVita is the husband of APT artistic director Brenda DeVita, who also is white. She cast the play before the hiring of director Ron OJ Parson, who is black.
The advance casting of the major role, somewhat common for repertory companies, added to the controversy.
In an interview with Parson for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, critic Mike Fischer described James DeVita in the role as a “distraction.” And Parson suggested he would have cast the role differently if he’d been attached to the production from the beginning.
A 'Blood Knot' between brothers
In the nearly three-hour play, Fugard, a white South African playwright strongly opposed to apartheid, tells the tale of Morris (DeVita) and Zachariah (Gavin Lawrence), two brothers living in a shanty in the “non-white neighborhood” of Port Elizabeth.
The characters share the same mother, but Morris had a white father. Fair-skinned, he is able to pass for white, which he does. Living with his brother, however, he spends virtually all his time indoors and out of sight.
Zachariah suffers through his day job as a guard outside an all-white park. He returns home each night with bruised and calloused feet, which Morris bathes in Epsom salts.
Zachariah wants a woman in his life, and he establishes a pen-pal relationship with Ethyl, who lives in a nearby community. When a picture arrives and the pair discovers the woman is white, Zachariah is amused. The amusement wanes when Ethyl announces she’s coming for a visit.
Morris is terrified. Mixed-race relationships in apartheid South Africa were considered a crime. Morris fears what could happen to “a dark-born boy playing with a white idea.”
Zachariah hatches a scheme: Morris will pose as him in meeting Ethyl. The brothers take the money they were saving to buy a farm and spend it on smart clothing for Morris, including a gleaming white suit.
The purchase and Morris’ donning of the suit lead to disastrous role-playing that results in an unraveling of the brothers’ relationship.
Knowing that a white actor is playing Morris makes this even more difficult to watch.
An 'extended metaphor'
Fugard directed the play’s only performance in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1961. He also played the role of Morris — a casting choice that created the dynamic the playwright felt he needed.
Fugard did the same for a 2012 Signature Theater production, which attracted its own level of controversy.
In a letter written June 22 to DeVita, Fugard allowed that a biracial actor also could have played the role of Morris. But the playwright still endorsed the approach he felt necessary when he wrote the work.
“During apartheid, racial classification was extremely arbitrary and often rested on nothing more than the racial prejudices of the classification board and what they regarded as ‘other,’” Fugard wrote. “I have always seen Blood Knot as an extended metaphor, which the use of a white actor serves to exaggerate.
“Positing a white and black body as having come out of the same mother goes some way to express the ambiguities of the time, and moreover, underline that race is but a construct.”
Parson, aware of the casting before signing on, agreed in principle with the playwright’s intent.
“The allegorical nature of the play is enhanced with this casting,” Parson wrote in a statement on the APT website. “To go beyond the natural and take us into an ethereal place that is representative of the world outside the shanty, to make the pivotal moment in that realm as real as possible, and make it representative of the execration of the apartheiders’ world that existed at the time of the play.”
Someone yelled 'fire!'
Audience members at APT’s “pay-what-you-will” production Aug. 12 formed their opinions and then stayed at the theater for a panel discussion with theater professionals and critics.
Chicago journalist and theater professional Jerald Raymond Pierce moderated the discussion, which involved actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, a Tony Award-nominee for his role in the recent Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences; theater scholar and dramaturge Kahlid Yaya Long; and critic Kelundra Smith, who co-chairs the American Theater Critics Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Both Henderson and Smith self-identified as biracial.
The audience fell about two dozen short of the Touchstone’s 201-seat capacity and the discussion was spirited.
“As Frederick Douglass once said, no one is in doubt that racism is wrong for themselves, only whether racism is wrong for someone else,” Henderson said during the panel discussion. “Casting a play is not a political action. In this case, someone yelled, ‘Fire!” in a building not on fire.
“I could see this play with a light-skinned brother playing the role, but there is no reason to do so in a company like this with these actors,” Henderson also said. “I was proud to see this brilliant production, but there’s a teachable moment here.”
A recent study by the Actors Equity Association noted stark barriers to artists of color during the 2013–15 season.
During the study period, 71 percent of contracts went to white artists, 7 percent went to black artists and barely 2 percent went to Asian artists.
“Complicit silence only allows these practices to continue to harm people, whether they are intentionally malicious or not,” Chad Bauman, the Milwaukee Rep’s managing director wrote in “Casting, equity and where to go from here,” published on his blog managingcreatively.com. “Therefore, we must hold each other accountable if we want to see systemic improvement in the field.”
Bauman was among more than 800 people who signed a pledge calling for greater sensitivity and awareness to issues of race in the theater.
Dana Pellebon, a biracial theater director in Madison, said she would not live in “complicit silence.” And, during the panel discussion, she said, “I was one of the ones who called, ‘Fire!’”
“After seeing this play, I see that casting isn’t the only issue. It’s the play’s festishism of whiteness,” Pellebon said.
“I wouldn’t want anyone portraying me onstage that doesn’t look like me,” she added, describing her “fury” in watching the play.
Henderson challenged the assumption that the casting was inconsistent with progress in sensitivity over such issues: “People question why a white actor ‘in this day and time,’ as if we’ve really made any meaningful progress. Racism is America’s birth defect that first started with hypocrisy.
“Every four years, we get one more chance to make things right, but this last time around I think we moved from a town car to a clown car.”
The American Players Theatre production of Blood Knot is onstage at the Touchstone Theatre in Spring Green through Sept. 28. For more information and ticket details, visit americanplayers.org/plays/blood-knot.