StreetSigns Center's Acts of Witness at The ArtsCenter

| March 07, 2012
J. Alphonse Nicholson and Lucius Robinson in "Blood Knot"
- Photo by Nicholas Graetz
J. Alphonse Nicholson and Lucius Robinson in "Blood Knot"

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."

Blood Knot

StreetSigns Center
At The ArtsCenter
Through March 20

Poetic Portraits of a Revolution

Sacrificial Poets presented by StreetSigns Center
At The ArtsCenter
Through March 11

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I've seen the Sacrificial Poets twice in the past month, first at the Arab Springs Conference at Duke, where they did straight reporting of what they saw in Egypt and Tunisia last summer. It was as passionate as when they first returned. I sat next to a Tunisian professor, who was clearly moved by what she heard and saw.

I also saw Acts of Witness: Poetic Portraits of a Revolution Tuesday evening at the ArtsCenter. The theater piece is quite different from what they were trying to accomplish earlier: it's too bad that Woods doesn't understand the difference.

Woods doesn't understand that the world has changed since Kane, Will, Mohammed and Sameer returned from Egypt and Tunisia, and this theater piece has changed with it. It's already clear that the revolutions are threatened by reaction: so how can their stories simply recount the excitement and immediacy of their successes?

This piece is about much more than the revolutions: it's about the journeys of 4 young men, raised with certain beliefs about revolution, finally experiencing real revolutions, and finding themselves changed by them. They are no longer simply channeling the emotion they experienced in North Africa, as they were at first. This theater piece is a meditation on what we as residents of North Carolina have a right to say on behalf of our North African sisters and brothers. Did Woods even notice that the evening ends with images of Chapel Hill and Carrboro? What I saw at the ArtsCenter was the mature reflection of what has happened in the lives of these four witnesses. The panel discussion afterwards showed just how successfully they've done it.

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Posted by zabouti on 03/08/2012 at 11:29 AM
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