Every once in a while a play comes along that is so electric and alive and thought-provoking and mesmerizing that you want to shout about it from the rooftops. This is one such play. Don’t miss this one.
. . . electric and alive and thought-provoking and mesmerizing. . . . Don’t miss this one.
‘Blood at the Root.’ Billie Holiday sang the definitive version of “Strange Fruit” in 1933 that contains this phrase. Then, 67 years later, at Jena High School in Louisiana, six black teenagers were arrested and charged as adults after assaulting a white student. This was after a series of other incidents, including nooses being hung from an oak tree out front that historically only white students sat under. In Louisiana, it became known as the case of the Jena Six. And the school’s response was in line with the community’s—it was just a “prank” to hang nooses from this tree. It couldn’t possibly be a threat and the African-American students were too sensitive to race.
The playwright, Dominique Morisseau, uses this incident as the lynchpin of her story, and from there tells a story that explores how close to the surface racism really is and how it colors everything it touches. It’s a tall order for a 90-minute play, but the writing sings off the pages of the script.
The story is told primarily from the viewpoint of Raylynn (a glorious, steadfast Billie Krishawn) who is thoughtful, reserved, smart and determined to be as much of a stand-up woman as her mother was. She is the catalyst—she decides one day to just go and sit under “Old Devoted,” the huge oak tree in front of the school, simply because it is hot on that October day in Louisiana. From that simple act a cascading chain of events erupts.
Eruption is an apt word for this show—it’s volcanic. From the moment the cast marches onto the stage singing the school song and then segues seamlessly into an explosion of a dance of youth and life and energy that just sizzles to the monologues to the protest march, you are caught in this vortex.
Two other characters give nuance to the question of what does it mean to be black in America? And how much do white people unknowingly put their expectations on African-Americans? Justin (Deimoni Brewington) is truly frightening—he has so much simmering rage that he vibrates in his unloading on Toria (Stephanie Wilson) in their final confrontation. His character is not threatening, but he is one of the Invisibles (even Toria acknowledges he’s more invisible than she is and she’s so invisible she’s almost “a ghost”); in the Darwinian experiment that is high school, he, as the editor of the school newspaper, is walking such a razor-thin line that it’s painful to watch. But when he finally erupts at Toria, in a scene that rocks the show, that sense of barely contained menace is frightening, because he is so aware of how close he is to an irreparable edge.
Toria, a good-hearted, deadly earnest and driven young woman given to outbursts of righteousness, is tone deaf to other people’s struggles; she is still young enough that she believes that if she can just convince everyone of the rightness of her position(s), then things will magically change. Justin gives her a much needed dose of reality. Their verbal duet/duel in that scene is show-stopping.
Paul Roeckell plays Colin, the football team’s quarterback; he is a transfer student. He seems fairly standard, off-the-shelf, small town football star until you realize that he rarely speaks to anybody and is quite self-contained. Their lockers are just about adjoining, Raylynn develops a little crush on him, then his secret comes out. His secret may be the thing that gets him attacked by six of his classmates/teammates; but the anti-LGBT feelings that can run through the African-American community are at least looked at (Raylynn notes she’s never “seen or known somebody like you,” and that she can’t comprehend the way he is; this will give her asking him a favor toward the end of the play, a cruelty she probably didn’t envision and will not try to understand).
Asha (Molly Shayna Cohen) seems like a stock character at first—a wanna-be, “black by association” appropriator of another’s culture. But in a surprisingly nuanced performance, Cohen lets you glimpse the fear underneath and the desperate longing for a family; she’s loud and crass and shoots one-liners faster than a taser, but she’s so afraid of being overlooked and left alone, that when she’s asked by Raylynn to stand up with the people she chooses to identify with, Raylynn, and Asha as well, sees that for Asha “being black” is a choice. You watch Asha learn a hard choice–that she’s also a wanna-be rebel; yet a few days later, when she seeks reassurance from Raylynn that’s nothing changed, you feel a little contemptuous of her. Raylynn’s measured gentle assurance that ‘we’re good” is a heartbreaking moment.
The entire cast, including the ensemble, just lights up the stage. The choreography, by Tiffany Quinn, underscores precisely the cohesion and dissonance of the students. Raymond O. Caldwell, the director, has created a nearly flawless blending of material and actors; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in any of these roles, they inhabit them so fully.
The set designed Jonathan Dahm Robertson is minimalistic yet conveys so much with lighting, some incredible projections and a few carefully selected props. The rows of lockers that make up the back wall have double uses and it’s simply brilliant, especially as it allows the majority of the stage to be used for the incredible movement and choreography.
This is a show that uses the Jena, Louisiana, incident not to reconstruct what happened (accounts vary), but as a jumping off point to feel how explosive and divisive everything still is decades after Miss Holiday sang “Strange Fruit.” There are no pat solutions; it’s a minefield to engage in every day and some days the mines have been moved. But what an incredible way to start a conversation!
Advisory: Adult language. Racist symbolism.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Blood at the Root” runs from February 23 – March 24, 2019, Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.