Cast gives strong performance in U-M’s "Blood at the Root"
High school is a tough time in anyone’s life. It’s a time when we invent ourselves several times over and never get it quite right. Throw some deep racial tension into the mix and things can become explosive.
In 2006, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, La., was beaten by six black students. The beating followed a racially charged week. A new black student at the high school dared to sit under a shade tree unofficially reserved for whites only. The next day, three nooses were hung from the tree. More incidents followed, including a damaging fire at the school. The six students were arrested and initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, later reduced to aggravated battery. The events led to a protest against what some thought were excessive and discriminatory treatment of the six students.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau uses these events for Blood at the Root, a fictional story that explores how the young students, black and white, react to these events and how they struggle to define themselves beyond the broad stereotypes they’ve been assigned. The play deals with the protests, but Morisseau, who is black, is more interested in the emotional impact of these events on young adults trying to find themselves.
The graduate theater students at the University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama are geared up for Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, continuing Nov. 17-19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The actors are only a few years older than the students they play and Morisseau gives them material that closely reflects who they are.
The 90-minute one-act play is set at fictional Cedar High School in Louisiana. It is organized around a series of small vignettes, thumping Greek chorus style crowds and individual testimonies from six students wrapped up in the events.Director Stori Ayers uses dramatic movement and dance, a minimalist set and a starkly realistic presentation of the students’ interactions. She gets a strong performance from her entire cast. It’s clear this play means something to them.
Ayers has a long history with the play. She was a graduate theater student at Penn State University in 2014 when Morisseau was commissioned by the university to write a play dealing with race relations. Ayers was the first actress to perform to perform the key role of Raylynn.
In the university production, Erin Croom gives both energy and deep empathy to the role Raylynn. She’s an ambitious, outspoken young black woman. She’s running for class president though she knows her odds are long in a predominantly white school where she is a newer student. One hot day, she violates an unwritten rule by sitting under the broad shade of the oak tree reserved for whites. Croom plays Raylynn with sass and a strong sense of herself, but in quieter moment she gives Raylynn a nuanced look of reflection and empathy.
Raylynn’s brother De'Andre is a star receiver on the football team with prospects the future. He is anxious to stay out of trouble until he can’t seem to avoid it and later finds himself in an orange suit and handcuffs, something he has struggled to avoid. ElyaKeem Avraham is riveting at De'Andre. He is charming in the beginning, but something is seething inside. Avraham spits out “the rules” that black children learn at an early age to avoid trouble with whites. But Avraham’s best moment is a driving dance of rage that seems to boil up from within. Choreographer and assistant director Christopher Campbell has designed strong, emotionally charged movements for Avaraham. He has also designed stomping, vigorous movements for the ensemble scenes.
Julia McDermott is Raylynn’s white friend Asha. Asha sees herself as closer to the black students than the white students. She speaks the language, she’s adopted the moves, she enjoys a strong friendship with Raylynn and yet she’s caught between two worlds. McDermott gives powerful voice to why Asha has so completely engaged an identity that seems threatened by the unfolding events. McDermott also has the voice and movements down pat.
Kevin Corbett plays Colin, a new white student at Cedar High School. He’s also a football player. At first Colin is tight-lipped and wary of others until he and Raylynn strike up a friendship. It is Colin who becomes the victim in the attack, which is complicated by the fact that Colin is a homosexual in a place where homosexuals are even more isolated than blacks. Corbett plays Colin as a kind but shy young man, who like De’Andre unleashes his own frustrations after the assault.
Kathleen Taylor plays Toria, a white reporter on the high school newspaper. Toria is tough, eager and bored by the lightweight drivel that passes for school journalism. When the nooses, protests, beating and arrests occur, she wants to cover it all and not hold back. Taylor doesn’t hold back either. She gives a full voiced defense of interpretive journalism and also a solid performance of a young woman on the move, very much like Raylynn.
Toria’s editor is Justin, a black student who is afraid of upsetting the principal and, possibly, losing his position. Toria and Justin are constantly at odds. Eddie Williams gives a deeply emotional performance as Justin. Justin’s speech is the saddest and most thought provoking in the play. Showing frayed emotions, Williams bites into a cry from the hearts, from a smart, quiet kid with ambitions of his own who finds he doesn’t fit in with whites or blacks. Williams’ body quivers, his dreadlocks slap across his tortured face as he spits out his frustration and hurt.
These fine actors are supported by an ensemble that performs Campbell’s choreography with skill and handles multiple small roles. They are Vincent Ford Jr., Chardanae Jameson, Georgia Spears and Sierra Stephens.
The scenic and lighting design by Justin N. Lang uses a gray American flag design for the floor, with stripes running up the back wall. Some scenes are presented as shadows on the wall. Other projections fill in as the newspaper’s office door, school lockers and the symbolic tree.
Nina Simone’s rendition of the song "Strange Fruit" is played during the scene when the nooses are discovered. Simone’s biting and bitter voice emphasizes why it matters so much for the black students. The play’s title comes from a line in the song that portrays the rash of lynchings in the South in the 1930s. But Morisseau’s play is not just about racial tensions but also shows a fine understanding of what it’s like to be young, confused and righteously angry, whether you’re black or white.
➥ U-M’s "Blood at the Root" challenges audiences to deal with race (Pulp preview)
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 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.