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Theatre in Review: Blood at the Root (National Black Theatre)

Photo: Penn State Centre Stage.

Dominique Morisseau's new play is set in a Louisiana high school that, at first glance, appears to be a harmonious place, if only because the different cliques and races keep to themselves. With enviable economy, she sketches in a cross section of the student body: Asha, who is white but generally hangs with the black kids; Colin, a white transfer student and rising star on the football team; De'Andre, a black star football player who, like Colin, has dreams of a pro career; Justin, the black editor of the school newspaper, who hates controversy; Toria, a white reporter for the newspaper, who constantly butts heads with Justin over her desire to stir things up; and Raylynn, a firecracker of a personality who decides that maybe it's time for a black student to run for student council president. Raylynn keeps tabs on De'Andre, her brother; has a best-girlfriends thing going with Asha; and gets to know Colin when she tutors him, helping him get up to speed with his new classes.

The overall impression is of a place where everyone hums along on his or her appointed track, avoiding trouble at all costs; it's a kind of segregation by tacit agreement. But Raylynn, whose late mother was something of a political activist, decides during a free period to shake up the status quo a little bit, choosing to sit under the tree on campus where the privileged white kids spend their free time. The next day, there are three nooses hanging from the branches. Suddenly, fault lines start to appear. Even as the school's administration tries to hush up the event, promising an internal investigation, Raylynn and De'Andre see it as the racist threat it is -- yet Asha lamely struggles to explain it away, trying to pass it off as a bad-taste prank and declining to take part in any protest. The conflicts don't cut neatly across racial lines: Toria wants to write a hard-hitting piece about the nooses, but Justin, with his horror of causing a furor, blocks her.

At this point, Morisseau throws a curveball into the action, when six black members of the football team, including De'Andre, beat up Colin, leaving him with cracked ribs and a broken arm. Rumor has it that the episode was a case of gay-bashing; we've seen Colin, who lives far inside the closet, nervously come out to Raylynn, by way of explaining that his expression of friendship wasn't a romantic pass. (We've also seen Raylynn's ham-handed response, which has damaged their relationship.) Trouble is, the cause of the fight is extremely murky, with both Colin and De'Andre insisting the other started it. When Raylynn approaches Colin, hoping to get him to drop the charges against her brother, we hear her falling back on the same easy rationalizations and feeble excuses that Asha had previously offered her. And, instead of writing the brief report that Justin requested, Toria produces a long essay linking the nooses with Raylynn's student-council run and Colin's beating, exacerbating tensions between them no end.

Morisseau unfolds her plot so neatly that my only regret is that Blood at the Root stops when it does, because there is so much more to be said. The play is based on the Jena Six, a real-life case involving six black high-school football players and a school marred by a display of nooses. (As far as I can tell, Morisseau has added the homophobia angle.) We never get to the bottom of who started the fight; even more to the point, we never learn how the team discovered Colin's sexual orientation, if indeed they did. The question of whether Colin should try to drop the charges is a complex one; he has been badly hurt, yet, thanks to draconian Louisiana laws, De'Andre at 17 will be tried as an adult, and is looking at decades behind bars. The play delves deeply into questions of racism, homophobia, violence (including a horrifying revelation about the death of Raylynn and De'Andre's mother), unfair social structures, and more, racing to a conclusion just when the conversation is getting good.

Still, even if some of the cast members in Steve H Broadnax III's fast-paced production are years past their high-school days, each of them eloquently expresses his or her character's point of view, making devastatingly clear that this situation has no easy solutions -- the more divisions sown, the more misery for all. Stori Ayers' Raylynn is one of those charming can-do types every school needs, and she only becomes more sympathetic as she struggles with the contradictions and complexities of the situation she finds herself embroiled in. In addition to showing real dance chops during the scene changes, Christian Thompson as De'Andre mostly convinces as an adolescent, especially in the scene in which he declines to visit the cemetery on the anniversary of his mother's death. Tyler Reilly's Colin is as cagey as you would expect someone with his secret to be, especially since his previous school experience has been a disaster. Kenzie Ross' Asha is an amiable airhead, stunned to find herself on the opposite side of her closest friends. Brandon Carter does extremely well by the monologue in which Justin bitterly admits that, as a light-skinned, well-spoken black guy with a preppy wardrobe, he has managed to isolate himself from the school's black and white communities.

The production has a relatively simple design marked by Karl Jacobson's scenic drop, a collage featuring a Black Power fist, an image of Martin Luther King, a Black Lives Matter logo, and bits of major civil rights texts; at key moments, the outline of a tree is rear-projected onto it. I think this latter effect is part of the lighting design by Nathan Hawkins and William Kenyon, which also reshapes the largely bare space from scene to scene. Carly Reeder's costumes are beautifully suited to each character; she has also come up with various bits of clothing bearing the Cedar High logo. And Liz Sokolak's sound design includes a playlist of current hip-hop hits, such as "Work," by Rihanna, plus ambient school noises and a contemporary cover of the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit."

Morisseau says she wrote the play more as a tool of social justice advocacy, and it is true that Blood at the Root is a less sophisticated work than, say, Detroit '67 or Skeleton. (It would make an excellent choice for high school and college theatre groups, both for the opportunities it offers a half-dozen actors and for the discussion it would provoke.) Nevertheless, she lays bare the complex interactions between the interlocking prejudices and grievances that prevent real social progress from taking place. It may be enough that she brings her characters to a place where no one can take comfort in long-held certainties. The time is now, she seems to say: Let the dialogue begin. -- David Barbour

(10 May 2016)

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