U-M’s "Blood at the Root" challenges audiences to deal with race
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
In 2014 Stori Ayers was a graduate student in acting at Penn State University. She had the rare opportunity to be the first actress to play a key role in Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, which had been commissioned by the university. She and other cast members worked with the author to develop the play
After performances at Penn State, she continued to perform the role of Raylynn in a touring production across the United States and internationally.
Ayers, who now teaches at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, will direct a U-M production of the provocative play, Nov. 16-20 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
Blood at the Root was inspired by events in Jena, La., in 2006. Six black students were charged with second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy in the beating at Jena High School that hospitalized a white student. The assault came at the end a series of racially charged events on the campus of the high school and in the town of Jena.
“Before the fight, racial tensions had been boiling at the school,” said Ayers. “There was a tree in the main court yard of the school that provided shade and only white people could sit there to get cool. If you were black you had to sit out in the sun. Well, a new student had come to town and at an assembly had asked why only white people could sit under the tree and he was told that anyone can sit under the tree, so he went and sat under the tree. The next day three nooses were hanging from the tree.”
The threatening nooses and their allusions to the lynching of black men in the south, set off a series of incidents in the community. Part of the school was destroyed by fire, though no one was charged. Morisseau used these events as a peg for a fictional story and took the play’s name from the song "Strange Fruit," popularized in 1939 by Billie Holiday.
Morriseau, an alumna of the U-M graduate acting program, said she found the events in Jena disturbing.
“I didn’t know if it would make a good play or not and I didn’t care, I wanted to address what was disturbing me,” she said. “The moment that was disturbing me at the time was like wow this was too disturbing in 2007 and I was still disturbed by it in 2013 when I was working on this. They had never dealt with race and privilege in their conversations and that was an interest of mine and the department head wanted to tackle it. And they asked me to try to tackle it. I was still very agitated about how these men were railroaded by the criminal justice system and I was also concerned about the racial incidents they were having at the school. I was amazed that the administration and people tasked to take care of these student’s well being were denying the rights they had at school.”
Morisseau’s fictional story is set in Louisiana, an African-American senior Raylynn challenges tradition and sits under a tree designated for white students. Ensuing events follow the outline of the Jena 6 story but give Morisseau flexibility in how to present the story.
Ayers said the characters are vulnerable and still trying to figure out who they are as people. The events challenge them to question their idea of themselves and others.
“Friendship is challenged,” Ayers said. “You thought you were on the same page and maybe you’re not. These two girls (one white and one black) are best friends and when this incident happens, they are challenged to say what they mean and do something about it. To me, I love how it deals with relationships. My favorite characters in the play are students who work on the school newspaper and they have to report these incidents around campus and they have different ideas about what it means to be a journalist and how write these stories and you see them navigate this.”
The play has a nonlinear structure. It focuses on the interactions of characters and their varied perspectives and uses movement to tell the story.
“I come from the body theater, that’s the work I did for 10 years in the New York education realm,” said Morisseau. “For me there was an organic element to it and the students wanted to do something organic. Not their words but their feelings and their ideology in a little bag, a storm of ideas that would come across in the play.”
Ayers said the experience of working with Morisseau on the original production has giver her insight on how to stage the play.
“I sort of know how the play moves, the rhythm of the play and it’s written with very minimal stage direction, and you see very little of the literal, linear, traditional storytelling,” she said. “It’s designed to move quickly, to move from incident to incident. It’s very episodic in that way and it’s staged where we can be very theatrical in some moments and then come down to very intimate moments. Then we have private moments with a character and then a protest, we move from macro to micro very quickly.”
The set design by Justin Lang is also very minimal with “an illusion of an American flag” that is upside down and skewed.
Morisseau grew up in Detroit and often attended theatre performances with her mother. The first play that “hooked her” was a production of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
“I was inspired by the black writers I grew up reading about in school and who wrote about the culture I had never learned about in school when I majored in college,” she said.
In addition to Shange, she was also influenced by the plays of George Wolfe, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Tennessee Williams, and fellow Detroit native Pearl Cleague, daughter of the activist minister the Rev. Albert Cleague.
“I was from Detroit and I wanted to learn about my history for one thing. I wanted to write about it and its humanity that wasn’t being given in the media, moments of disturbance that shaped this landscape and I wanted to absorb it. I wanted it to be from the point of view of someone who loved the city rather than being a critic of it,” she said.
Her plays include The Detroit Project, a trilogy highlighting key moments of Detroit history, including Detroit ’67, which won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, Paradise Blue, and Skeleton Crew. In addition to the Kennedy Prize, she is also a two-time NAACP Image Award recipient and an Obie Award winner
Stori Ayers said her young cast is excited by the play.
“When I first worked on the piece, I was in graduate school and maybe six or seven years older than the students who are working on it now,” Ayers said. “It’s interesting how many have been involved in social justice initiatives on campus. So they are little activists in their own right and so seeing them in this kind of play, anytime you do one of Dominique’s works you become an activist-actor without a choice. To them bringing that activism to their work as artists in exciting and they rise to the occasion.”
Morisseau was not optimistic about the current political situation when asked if race relations have improved in recent years.
“No, no, no they haven’t improved,” she said, “We are in a state of emergency, There is a toxicity to our social relationships right now and it’s being used by the highest level of government in the land and it’s problematic."
She said the emergency won’t end until there is a debate over race and privilege, “whether a male privilege, a racial privilege, a world privilege. Until we admit privilege, there is no way we can get to anywhere.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Blood at the Root" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Nov. 16, 8 pm on Nov. 17 and 18, and 2 pm on Nov. 19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan’s north campus. For tickets, call 734-764-2538 or go online to tickets.smtd.umich.edu">http://tickets.smtd.umich.edu">tickets.smtd.umich.edu.