Written and set during South Africa's Apartheid era of institutionalized racism and segregation, South African playwright Athol Fugard’s dramatic play The Blood Knot
(1961) concerns two half-brothers who share the same mother, who is black. One of the brothers can pass for white, while the other cannot. The first South African play with a multi-racial cast, The Blood Knot
was only performed once in Fugard's home country due to its controversial subject matter and content. Nevertheless, the play attracted attention in the United States where it was performed off-Broadway in 1964 and later in a Broadway revival in 1986. The play was also shown on British television multiple times during the 1960s. In the wake of the play's single premiere performance, the South African government under the leadership of the strict Apartheid supporter B.J. Vorster confiscated Fugard's passport.
The play features only two characters: half-brothers Morris and Zachariah share the same mother, who is black. However, because Morris's father is white, his skin is far lighter than his brother's, allowing him to pass for a white man. During the Apartheid era, an authoritarian leadership rooted in white supremacy governed South Africa. Consequently, the white minority in power dominated the nation’s black majority politically and economically. Non-white ethnic groups were segregated into poorer neighborhoods and disenfranchised politically.
Having lived for a few years as a white man, Morris returns to the "colored" section of Port Elizabeth to live with Zachariah. Together, they inhabit a small run-down shack which Morris maintains while Zachariah goes to work at a meager-paying job. Morris does not want to work in the predominantly black neighborhood of Port Elizabeth because, as a man who looks white, he fears he will not fit in. Morris and Zachariah dream of one day saving up enough money to buy a farm outside the city. As children, they played role-playing games driven by their active imaginations. Now reunited, they continue these games to some degree.
Desperately lonely for female companionship, Zachariah carries on a pen pal relationship with a white girl who does not know he is black. While Zachariah optimistically believes he and the girl can have a real, in-person relationship, Morris is far more cynical about the matter. In fact, the very earliest Apartheid laws passed by South Africa were the Prohibition of Mixed Marriage Act and the Immorality Amendment Act, the latter of which barred sexual relations of any kind between two different races. Morris is especially alarmed when he learns that the girl's brother is a police officer.
When the girl insists on visiting Port Elizabeth and meeting Zachariah in person, Morris convinces his brother that she will be horrified when she discovers he is a black man. Having accepted the impossibility of the two engaging in a sexual relationship, Zachariah allows the lighter-skinned Morris to pose as him to mitigate the risk of being arrested by the girl's brother.
In preparation for the rendezvous, Morris buys the type of clothes that a white man is likely to wear, spending a significant portion of the money Zachariah had earned to put toward their dream of buying a farm. As Morris dons the clothes, his mannerisms and speech also become more "white," drawing on his years of passing as a white man. The more he transitions into the style and voice of a white man, the more he begins to treat Zachariah as inferior, almost as if Zachariah is his servant. Whether Morris really comes to believe himself superior or if this is just another of the brothers' elaborate role-playing games is unclear.
In a new letter, the girl explains that she has changed her mind, and she will not visit Port Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the two brothers continue their interracial role-playing game. Morris's superiority and disdain for Zachariah grow increasingly extreme. Meanwhile, Zachariah expresses a deep-seated desire to murder Morris. The brothers' conflict is never truly resolved, and the play's conclusion suggests that owing to their different skin colors, the disconnect between them will never truly be bridged.According to The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow
, The Blood Knot
is "an artfully executed theatrical dialogue. One can discover the seeds of the author's art. Themes, motifs, images, and the author's own impassioned conscience are all there in organic form."