Characters Discussed

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Last Updated May 22, 2023.

Zachariah Pietersen 

Zachariah is one of the two main characters in the play. He is Morris's darker-skinned brother. Zachariah is sensual, illiterate, and a spendthrift. Throughout the play, Zachariah struggles with his own self-image as a Black man living in South Africa's Apartheid state.

Zachariah is portrayed as largely subservient to his brother Morris. Due to his skin color, Zachariah sees little hope of advancing his position in life. Thus, he is focused on fulfilling his hedonistic urges. Throughout the play, Zachariah laments his lack of sexual fulfillment, which he feels has been denied him by the overly zealous Morris.

This outward bravado hides a raw, still-festering wound. In a dream-like monologue in which he confronts their deceased mother, Zachariah lays bare all of his angst and pain. He pretends that he is the successful brother and Morris is the failure. Zachariah's memories of maternal rejection haunt him. He knows of no other way to channel his hurt than to resort to physical violence when Morris acts to thwart his will. Thus, when Morris tries to stop Zachariah from spending their life's savings on a gentleman's suit, Zachariah uses his superior physical strength to overpower Morris.

Throughout his life, Zachariah has been marginalized, first by his mother, then by society. In wresting control of the tin box from Morris, Zachariah symbolically reclaims mastery over his own fate. However, the satisfaction of doing so is transient. Ethel never visits him in Port Elizabeth, and she ultimately severs their correspondence. Meanwhile, the brothers are bereft of their life's savings and stranded in Korsten with little hope for a better future. Zachariah becomes powerless once more and ultimately accepts that life will be a constant uphill struggle, filled with overwhelming challenges.

Morris Pietersen

Morris is the second of the two main characters in the play. An educated, pious, and frugal man, Morris is lighter-skinned than his brother and often acts in a way that metaphorically aligns him with white men. Since he is educated, Morris believes that he is the most equipped to direct Zachariah's destiny. When Zachariah insists on corresponding with Ethel, Morris takes it upon himself to protect Zachariah from breaking South Africa's miscegenation laws. Thus, he closely monitors Zachariah's tone and language in his letters to Ethel. Morris also carefully guides the trajectory of Zachariah's communications so that Zachariah relates nothing incriminating about himself.

During the height of the Apartheid era, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1957 banned interracial sexual intercourse and marriage. Those who dared to rebel were sentenced to prison terms. In the play, Morris alludes to this when he warns that a “man's dreams” can lead to “confinement, in a cell, on bread and water, for days without end.” These laws stood in place until they were abolished in 1985 by the signing of the Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act.

It is also Morris who structures the brothers' daily routines and reads the Bible to the often inattentive Zachariah. Reflecting the role of the white man, Morris makes himself responsible for Zachariah's moral and religious instruction. Toward the end of the play, Morris even prays a curious, distorted version of the Lord's Prayer, interceding for the black man for his “sin” of trespassing white spaces.

On the surface, Morris champions the virtue of this paternalistic role. However, in the private recesses of his mind, Morris agonizes over his actions and harbors a great fear of not living up to expectations. In the end, the guilt and strain of trying to pass for a white man—is what...

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compels him to return to Zachariah. Ultimately, Morris reclaims his self-respect by choosing to share Zachariah's fate in life.

Ethel Lange

Ethel is one of three women Morris selected for Zachariah to potentially correspond with. After some coaching from Morris, Zachariah picks Ethel as his pen pal. Throughout the play, Ethel represents the quintessential white woman, whose touch every man longs for but which remains elusive to the black man.

Nellie de Wet

Nellie is another of the three women Zachariah wanted to correspond with. Morris rejects Nellie as a viable choice for Zachariah's pen pal because she likes going out and is seemingly focused on material pleasures.

Betty Jones

Betty is the final of the three women Zachariah wanted to correspond with. Morris rejects Betty as a viable choice for Zachariah's pen pal because she is educated and less likely to be a suitable friend for the illiterate Zachariah.

Morris & Zachariah's Mother

Throughout the play, the brothers’ mother appears to them in their memories but also as an old woman in a nondescript gray dress. She makes appearances during the brothers' playacting sessions. Zachariah's mother epitomizes Mother Africa, a woman torn between her white and black sons.

The White Park Supervisor

The park supervisor remains unnamed in the play. He represents the white man, who rules over all but secretly fears the repercussions of his brutal hegemony.