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StreetSigns Center's Acts of Witness at The ArtsCenter

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In another exhibition of superior acting up close, StreetSigns Center's riveting production of the Athol Fugard drama, Blood Knot, J. Alphonse Nicholson and Lucius Robinson take us half a world and half a century away to a place that, for many Southerners, remains just a small distance down the road.

In designer Joncie Sarratt's humble shanty fashioned out of dirty throw rugs, wooden crates and corrugated tin, two half-siblings reunited the year before attempt to restore true brotherhood with one another. This will not be easy: For starters, Zachariah (Nicholson) and Morris (Robinson) have been separated for years. For another, their different fathers place Zach on the black side of the color line in South Africa in 1961, while Morris can pass as white.

What makes this work so rending is the degree to which both brothers have internalized the abuse that they've encountered. It's not only visible in the macabre rituals the two ultimately take on, wherein a fancy suit confers on one the status of oppressor. It's in the uneasy domestic—and nearly parental—role Morris has already assumed in the first scene. And it is definitely in the merciless scripture Morris cites, when alone, from Chapter 4 of Genesis: the passage in which a lifetime of unspeakable punishment awaits a man who fails, once, to be his brother's keeper.

Under Joseph Megel's direction, Nicholson embodies the fatigue, the coarseness and crude joys of Zachariah, before a dilemma forces his character to painfully kill a dear and long-held dream. The blank looks Robinson's Morris suddenly gives Zach make the room go still more than once in suspense. In Fugard's taut script, when one race attempts to liberate another, both wind up tangled further in a potentially fatal deadlock. An enigma of Gordian dimensions awaits our contemplation in Blood Knot.

With the rough parts duly sanded, this first fully staged version of the Sacrificial Poets' Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, which is presented in repertory with Blood Knot, runs much smoother than its initial incarnation as a staged reading in UNC's Process Series last fall. And that, I'm afraid, is a problem.

Let's be clear: This multimedia performance, in which spoken word artists Kane Smego and Will McInerney fuse video documentary footage from Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 with their own poetic journalism, has a series of messages the world very much needs to hear. But has too much polish inadvertently dulled some of the sharpest corners in this discourse? Last September, there was a verifiable edge, and an air of desperation, that gave this work much of its propulsion and immediacy. By comparison, some of its truths now seem too easy. And whenever the faintest whiff of self-congratulation threatens this endeavor, we must remember that the real heroes in this piece can't make it for the show. Here's hoping this crucial crew recovers the rawness that got them there, and back; these stories must be told.

This article appeared in print with the headline "New futures and no futures."

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