There they stand smiling, the white man and the black man, applauding each other in turn while the audience showers them with applause. It was a Broadway occasion, last night at the Golden; the reunion of two old friends in the stunning play, "Blood Knot," which first drew widespread attention to the South African playwright Athol Fugard more than 20 years ago.
The characters they play, Morris (Fugard) and Zachariah (Zakes Mokae), are brothers, sons of a black woman and an uncertain father or fathers, living in a tin-roofed shanty in a black suburb of Port Elizabeth. Zach returns from a measly paying job each evening to a basin of warm, salted water prepared by Morris for his aching feet.
The ferrety cook and housekeeper Morris, who returned only a year ago after "passing" as a white man elsewhere, is hoarding his brother's pay in hopes of their buying a farm and moving away from this slum beside a stinking lake.
But Zach has blissful reveries about finding a woman, and with the help of his literate brother he begins corresponding with a young woman who has placed an ad for a pen pal in a local paper. At his request, she mails him a snapshot. She is attratctive, well-developed and white.
With pleasing, unforced echoes of such disparate works as "Of Mice and Men" and "Cyrano de Bergerac," Morris is persuaded to pass for Zach, with the result that Zach empties their tin box to buy suitable clothes, including a white scarf for the lady, for Morris' impersonation. In time, a note comes from the girl; she has become engaged to a local boy who will not tolerate a pen pal.
But a game has developed between the men, whose mean lives preclude anything but self-entertainment. Morris dons the new clothes and poses as a white man. Gradually a monstrous situation emerges, remindful of the climactic one in Fugard's "Master Harold... and the boys."
Now, Morris, the small and nervous and seedy-looking schemer, begins to assume the persona he recalls from "passing," and in a scene they recreate from Zach's experiences at a park gate, Morris saunters haughtily by Zach to turn on him, with a voice full of abusive authority, call him "nigger." The shock waves are enormous in the little shack, not to mention the theater itself.
In a day or so, sfter a heartfelt nighttime solioquy by Zach, the two, tied by this odd blood knot, have readjusted themselves to their pathetic way of life. But they have learned a shattering lesson, and so have we.
The performances are as brilliant as the concise and deadly humorous play itself. For much of it - the entire first half, really - is full of horseplay. And like "Master Harold," it ends in merriment as we in the audience reel from its truth. The stocky, good-humored Mokae is perfectly matched by the skinny, shambling figure presented by Fugard, whose baggy pants are almost a total reflection of his character.
What marvels, the two of them! And what a triumphant return, this time to Broadway, for a work that signaled the arrival of a major new playwright back in 1964 when James Earl Jones and J.D. Cannon introduced it Off-Broadway. Weep, South Africa, weep.
Athol Fugard's Blood Knot has taken a long and tortuous route to Broadway, but last night this bittersweet, funny-tragic parable of South Africa and blood arrived at the John Golden Theater.
And arrived under the finest auspices - in the Yale Repertory Theater production, staged by Fugard hinself, and with the playwright and that Fugard-stalwart, Zakes Mokae, as the two half-brothers locked in blood and destiny.
Blood Knot was the first Fugard play to reach New York, coming to the tiny Off-Broadway Cricket Theater in 1964, in a long-running production starring James Earl Jones and J.D.Cannon.
The present production is the first to reunite Mokae and Fugard, who created their roles at the play's first performance, just outside Johannesburg in 1961.
An early play, it is perhaps influenced in part by Beckett's Waiting for Godot, but it is far more direct than Beckett, even in its thinly veiled symbolism.
Two brothers, Zachariah and Morris - half-brothers actually, they had the same black mother, but one is black, the other, who had a white father, is what is known in South Africa as "Cape colored" - live together in a one-room shack just outside Port Elizabeth.
The black Zach works as a gatekeeper in town, while Morris maintains what there is of the household.
They have been together for just a year - after Morris returned from wandering, and set up for the two of them a dream of one day owning a little "two-man farm."
To this end they live a Spartan existence, controlled by Morris, the alarm clock, and the Bible. Every possible cent is frugally saved by the obsessive Morrie, who looks after Zach like a patient but unyielding housewife.
But Zach misses the old days and his old ways. Most of all he misses women. Morris arranges to do something about this.
He helps the illiterate Zach to acquire a pen-pal. Unfortunately, she is acquired from the wrong newspaper. A photograph soon reveals that she is white. Her letter further informs the brothers that she also has a brother - a policeman.
What to do? They are, under South African law, virtually criminals. And yet Zach is pleased to find himself corresponding with a white girl, and is reluctant to give up this tenuous relationship.
This ostensible theme of Blood Knot is very slender, and even its humors are extenuated.
But for one thing. This is South Africa and the time is now. And the two brothers are a potential paradigm of South African race relations.
The brothers play games - of memory and make-believe. They remember their childhood, and more dangerously they play-act how their relationships might be if Morris was, in fact, what he seems to pass as - white.
They realize that if, to save the situation, one of them is to meet the girl, it will have to be Morris, and Zach spends their "dream money" on outfitting him in a manner befitting some white dude.
Perhaps clothes make the man. Or, perhaps not. For Morris realizes that "whiteness" is not a simple matter of skin color in South Africa, but more an attitude of behavior, a cast of mind.
Set designer Rusty Smith has created a ramshackle tin shack seemingly suspended in black space, and Susan Hilferty's costumes strike a keenly observed note.
Fugard's staging is deliberately slow, slowly deliberate - the slight story unfolds, allowing its resonances of symbolism to be almost shaken from it in a leisurely fashion.
As Zach, Zakes Mokae has that combination of sly humor and moral rectitude that is so appealing in many of his characterizations - I recall his Zach from the play's first London production, in 1963. It was, I suspect, more innocent then.
Fugard's own raggedy, rabbity Morris makes a neat counterpoint to Mokae. He is at his best when - like Shen Te disguising herself as a capitalist cousin in Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan - his posh suit transforms him into an oppressive overlord.
Although this is a thought-provoking play - and the provocation is becoming all the more thoughtful with almost each news dispatch from embattled South Africa - it is also, in its bickering, Godot-like style, very funny.
It will not be a play for everyone, since for its full effect its qualities need to be enhanced by our perception of its intent.
Yet play and performance shine out as a gently funny, yet deeply incisive statement of political theater. For the Broadway season it is a boon and a blessing.
The most persistent sound in Athol Fugard's ''Blood Knot'' is the harsh ringing of a windup alarm clock, blaring insistently into the tranquillity of a tin-roofed hovel. The clock is the means by which the shack's occupants, two mixed-race brothers in South Africa, mark the passing of their dreary, unvaried days. But the ring also has a piercing urgency, as if it were sounding an alarm far beyond the walls of the shabby setting. One might say - even if the playwright never explicitly does - that it is history's alarm, warning of a time bomb soon to go off. Such is the sad saga of South Africa that Mr. Fugard's warning is perhaps even more pressing now than it was when the playwright first unveiled ''Blood Knot'' in 1961.
To call the new production of this work at the Golden a revival isn't entirely accurate. Yes, Mr. Fugard and his partner, Zakes Mokae, are back in the roles they originated almost 25 years ago, in the legendary Johannesburg performance that established the play and its author's career. Yet in a sense the men have been playing their parts, spiritually if not literally, ever since that premiere. There is an arc to the Fugard-Mokae collaboration that runs from 1961 to their last joint effort, as writer and co-star of '' 'Master Harold' . . . and the Boys'' in 1982 - just as there is a continuum to the South African history to which they have devoted their creative lives.
''Blood Knot'' is very much the creation of a young playwright, and if it isn't as accomplished or powerful as such recent Fugard works as ''A Lesson From Aloes'' and ''Master Harold,'' it still moves, in its rambling way, to a shattering climax. The seeds of the later Fugard plays are all here: With only two characters and a simple setting - and with little plot and no polemics - the writer channels the inhumanity of a racist society and the courage of its victims into primal, intimate theater that both embodies and transmutes the grim specifics of apartheid.
The evening's framework is as modest as its two characters. The light-skinned Morris (Mr. Fugard), who has successfully ''passed'' in white South Africa, has returned home from his wanderings to his dark-skinned sibling, Zachariah (Mr. Mokae). Morris hopes to assuage his guilt over past desertions by saving up for ''a two-man farm'' that will secure the men's happier future. Zach, who takes one day at a time, harbors fantasies of romantic companionship and begins corresponding with a female pen pal. But the pen pal quickly proves to be white, and, in the ensuing descent to reality, both men jettison their grandiose illusions to reassert the fraternal bond that will allow them to survive in the barren present. ''A lot of people get by without futures these days,'' concludes Morris - although Mr. Fugard makes it clear that even those without futures can know love and some hope.
The play's most dramatic moments, all in Act II, occur when Morris, toying with the notion of passing for white again in an assignation with Zach's pen pal, buys a ''gentleman's suit'' and starts play-acting the role. However, the game, in which Zach assumes the guise of a subservient black ''boy,'' gets out of hand; the two brothers find themselves swept up in a paradigm of racial apocalypse reminiscent of the scene in which the young white protagonist of ''Master Harold'' spits at the servant Sam. In ''Blood Knot,'' as in the later play, that instant in which hatred, anger and brutality congeal into violence could make even the most enlightened theatergoer squirm with the horror of grotesque self-recognition. Mr. Fugard doesn't allow anyone, least of all himself, to escape without examining the ugliest capabilities of his soul.
To get to this climax, the audience must bear with a first act that can be rough going. Even with trims, this play seems too long at 2 hours, 40 minutes; the flab is in the repeated and attenuated exposition. Just the same, there is some superb writing in Act I: The girlish letters from the 18-year-old pen pal, Ethel, with their homely platitudes and idle chitchat (''My interests are nature, rock-and-roll . . .''), set up a pathetic contrast between the confines of the brothers' hovel and the white bourgeois South Africa so beyond their reach. At times the juxtapositions take on a comic absurdity as well - especially when Ethel writes Zach, ''You got a car?,'' or when Morris incongruously parades his ''white'' wardrobe (including a brightly patterned umbrella) within his home's almost feral squalor.
As an actor, the gaunt, grizzled Mr. Fugard mines the dark comedy of the white poses, but his performance in Act I, during which Morris overcompensates for his guilt by prissily patronizing Zach, can be as unvaried as the script. One might also quarrel a bit with the playwright's usually intense direction. As Mr. Fugard's early writing had yet to learn the virtues of reductivism, so the staging could use some editing - notably in the fastidious business by which Morris establishes the household's domestic rituals. The production's set seems a bit bloated, too. While the designer Rusty Smith has persuasively rendered the brothers' shack, it is left to float within a roomy empty stage that, whatever its uses as a metaphorical abyss, dissipates the intimacy of the action.
Such diffusion is not a problem when Mr. Mokae is in command. A proud, tight-lipped figure as Sam in ''Master Harold,'' the actor reveals time's ravages here: He seems old and slow of step as he trudges wearily home from his daily labors. But once Zach delivers an impassioned soliloquy to the dead washerwoman mother he hardly knew (''I've got beauty too, haven't I?'' he roars incantatorily) or claims his ''black happiness'' in defiance of white cruelty, the actor becomes a majestic figure of dignity. Springing out of the shadows later on, his eyes aflame with rage prompted by a lifetime of suffering, Mr. Mokae seems to evoke the rising up of an entire people.
This is one of those rare performances in which the actor is inseparable from the role - and, given Mr. Fugard's play, in which the role is inseparable from a real-life tragedy. Nearly a quarter-century after its inception, one still leaves ''Blood Knot'' wondering how much longer these great South African artists must sound their harrowing alarm to awaken the consciences that might yet bring that tragedy to an end.