A Statement on "Blood Knot" Casting from Actor Gavin Lawrence

Posted June 22, 2018 By Gavin Lawrence

I’m Gavin Lawrence and I’m currently playing the role of Zachariah in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot at American Players Theatre. These opinions are my own and are not intended to reflect the position of American Players Theatre.

About Blood Knot.

America has constantly forced me to view this world through the lens of race - whether it’s the obligatory rights of passage of being pulled over by cops with guns drawn on the New Jersey Turnpike, or the assumption from my white friends that whenever something “racial” goes down I will or should definitely have something to say, or when one of those same friends tells me an innocuous story about somebody and feels the need to let me know that the somebody is a “black person,” not just a person but a “black person,” or when I’m constantly addressed as “my man,” or (yes I’m going to say it) when I’m reminded how intelligent and articulate I am - and this is coming from people whom I like. I still await the day when I’ll hear one of my white friends or associates compliment another white friend or associate on their intelligence. All of this to say that over the years I have become what back in the day was called a “race man” in some circles and a troublemaker in others. I’m a disciple of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and W.E.B. Dubois; Bob Marley, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Toni Morrison. Over my 30 plus years in theatre I’ve tended to call racism when I see it, though I must admit as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to take some days off from being black, which usually entails staying home for the day, not watching TV, and staying off of social media - I usually fail at one of these.

So yes, I view the world through the lens of race, and it’s because of this view that I as a black actor am driven to make sure that in a play about race and white privilege, that a primarily white audience not be let off the hook and not be allowed to disengage, which is what I feel would happen in a production of Blood Knot in which this same audience sees one black man, no matter the skin tone, call another black man a “nigger.’ It would, in my opinion, allow a white audience to say, ‘That’s not me. Interesting play and uncomfortable to watch, maybe, but that’s not me. That’s not us. That’s them.’ But to see a man onstage, one who looks absolutely white, not maybe white but absolutely white get carried away to the point where he uses this white privilege to abuse his black “brother” forces a white audience to see itself in that very direct reflection of white male privilege that we are in the throes of in America today, whether it be in the White House or the offices of many artistic and managing directors of this country’s regional theatres.

For those white males who seem to take issue with the casting of a white actor in the role of Morris in APT’s production of Blood Knot, who seem to be professing that they are “woke,” by taking issue with this casting choice, it would be helpful if you got it right. Did you read the play? Have you studied the history of its professional life? Have you studied Fugard, the play’s author? How familiar are you with metaphor and allegory? To compare the casting of a white actor to play a character that is supposed to look white to the casting of a white actor to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - a historical figure who actually existed - is in my opinion a desperate stretch to appear enlightened about race in America or to appear to be on the front lines in the battle against appropriation in the American theatre. I find it sophomoric, inaccurate, irresponsible, and incendiary. I would much rather see these men in positions of power in the American theatre bring more people of color and women to the decision-making table when it comes to casting and choosing their seasons. Hopefully this would lead to these regional theatres hiring us not just for musicals where we sing and dance, not just for those plays where we’re allowed to play the “exotic other,” and not just for their one obligatory black/Latino/Asian/queer/edgy/you know what I mean play per season to create a look of diversity and inclusiveness.

As Mr. Fugard said himself, he has 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 also underlines that race is a construct.

I am a black father of two young adults - a black son and a black daughter - who are both stepping out into this world on their own, navigating what America has in store for them. I have no interest in telling watered down stories about race, especially at a time of such chaos in our country. I have no interest in doing a play that explores race, a concept and construct created by privileged white men, in which an audience that has traditionally benefited from that exact privilege is let off the hook by feeling that this story is not about them, and that their culpability, knowingly or unknowingly, in the continued oppression of people of color in this country and the continued destruction of black bodies in this country is not illuminated and called to task.

If what you come away with after having experienced Blood Knot is a problem with the casting, then I humbly submit that you’ve missed the point, or that you have some other agenda – either way I have to say that you’re clearly not “woke.” And for those who jump on social media bandwagons based on headlines without doing your homework, please work on your critical thinking skills. When a situation of racial or cultural appropriation in the American theatre truly calls for response and action, I’ll be right there with you. This production, however, is not one of them.