Blood at the Root: Activism in Art

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Nooses were hanging like vines. Roots penetrated deeply into blood soaked soil. And then there was a fight.

 

Blood at the Root is a small-scale production. The cast numbers six. It was performed at the National Black Theatre, which has a seating capacity of less than two hundred. The set is comprised of a flat backdrop and six chairs in constant rotation. But there is nothing small-scale about the impact of this play. Blood at the Root forces the audience to feel. Given the plot, it is effortless to side with the underdog and hurl acrimony at the unscrupulous justice system. Yet no one gets off the hook quite that easily.

Blood at the Root is set in the fictional town of Cedar, Louisiana, based as it is on the real events that occurred in Jena, Louisiana in 2006. An infamously heavy-handed penalty was sought for six African-American youth over a schoolyard brawl. Parents of the Jena 6  felt that the cards were stacked against their sons in this town where White Americans make up over 85% of the population. We had to digest this tragedy as part of the continuum of America’s shameful record of racial oppression and the quiet complicity that allows it to persist.

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Protesters wearing hoodies and chanting “We will not be moved!”

Louisiana is nestled in the south of the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. There, more people per capita carry out their lives within cages than anywhere else. Disproportionately high numbers of Black boys and men are sent to penal institutions in Louisiana to die behind bars.

“With the stroke of a pen I can end your lives,”

said the District Attorney in Blood at the Root. He directed these remarks at African-American students who had gathered to protest a hate crime on school grounds. His pen could, in fact, determine whether someone is punished for an infraction with the proverbial slap on the wrist or decades of a waking burial under the dehumanizing, yet pervasive and expanding, carceral system.

In spite of the brutality of the situation, it is the notion of empathy outside of familiarity that prevails in this work. Student journalist, Toria, argues “a good writer can see themselves in everyone.” The production called on everyone, writer or not, to find themselves in others – to assume that difficult position of someone else’s point of view and furthermore, to be empathic. The development of the plot around a highly publicized, real-life incident meant that it was easy for viewers to find an entry point to the material through either recollection of the case or by understanding it in terms of more recent events, such as the groundless slayings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement. This play, however, goes well beyond the specifics of a legal matter. It urges us all to aspire to a higher level of humanity.

 

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Tyler Reilly and Stori Ayers as Colin and Raylynn

Blood at the Root was developed when Penn State Theatre School commissioned playwright, Dominique Morisseau, to write for its graduate acting class in 2012. I saw the play performed by Penn State Centre Stage under the direction of Steve Broadnax in May 2016. During this run of Blood at the Root, audiences could capitalize on the upsurge of theatre that centered various aspects of the Black experience via Broadway hits such as The Color Purple and Eclipsed. In addition to the timeliness of its placement within this moment of theatre, the thematic framework of the play imbues it with the urgency of our times.

Rules & Roots

Our female protagonist, Raylynn, recalled her deceased mother’s advice in an optimistic opening monologue: break a rule or ten, just to remember the strength of your own will. With this sentiment in mind, Raylynn decided to push at the invisible boundaries that demarcate her place in society. Her decision to become the first African-American class president at her school was part of her personal liberation from such “rules”. Later on, her brother, De’Andre, embattled and caged in a jail cell, decried “the rules” that imprison him even when he is free.

“Why the hell, how the hell did I forget the rules?”

His ‘Black skin, male body’ meant that the smallest departure from those rules would be met with the harshest, state-sanctioned censure. While America’s biggest sore spot – (in)justice along the racial divide – was a dominant theme, this play left ample room to consider class struggles, gender and sexuality bias and issues of identity and belonging. The fictitious student who was badly beaten by others was homosexual; the white student who associated with Black students at the price of being called “a wannabe,” lived with an African-American stepmother; the student who seemed indifferent and removed was actually defensive against hurtful labels such as “oreo” or “coconut.” Arbitrary enforcement of society’s often savage “rules” shapes privilege and defines the limits of opportunity.

 

The white transfer student, Colin, who would eventually become a pivotal figure in the quest for understanding and justice after the incident, was used to introduce the concept of ‘roots’. His affinity for history class stemmed from his delight in recognizing provenance.

“Everything got roots,”

he explained. The backdrop alternated between the illustration of a timeline of critical Civil Rights moments and that of a tree. This led the audience to a sense, not of random, disconnected acts perpetrated by good or evil characters, but a continuity of causes and effects fed by deep roots. Characters were situated not only geographically, but also in time – products of the cumulative impact of all that had gone before them.

 

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The tree with nooses hanging like vines

The tree at the center of the schoolyard controversy offered a powerful motif for the depth and reach of racial oppression. The bodies of cast members, in a vertical arrangement in front of the silhouetted tree on the backdrop, fleshed out the age-old being. The cluster of bodies – nooses suspended from their hands, backs turned to the audience – was indicative of the collusion that is necessary to perpetuate hatred. Openness and cooperation, on the other hand, would be required to end it. The shade beneath the branches of this tree was unofficially but universally understood as a “white’s only” area. A day after some Black students sat there in breach of this unspoken etiquette of place, white students responded by hanging nooses upon its branches. Visions of throngs who smiled at a grisly harvest, strange fruit… The characters’ description of the insufferable heat established an atmosphere of discomfort that, in their scripted naiveté, they ascribed to the weather. It was hot, “hot, hot, hot!” on the day that an African-American student stepped out of line by seeking shade. Symbols of terrorism, open wounds of loss, protests, threats of severe castigation, dismissal of pain by authority figures, the raging testosterone of teenaged athletes, racial slurs, flaring tempers and the unbearable ‘heat’… Nooses were hanging like vines. Roots penetrated deeply into blood-soaked soil. And then there was a fight.

 

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Christian Thompson dances in his role as De’Andre

Traditions of dance that developed throughout the African Diaspora incorporate apparatuses for survival – dexterity, feigned aloofness, aggression, faith. A North American, inner city genre that captures the zeitgeist of its late 20th century emergence, Hip Hop dancing combines elements of many earlier traditions. Two arresting hip-hop dance routines performed by De’Andre infused the production with seat-gripping tension. The audience connected with the kinetic embodiment of frustration and rage. A viewer could feel the confusion and pain of Black youth who are first excluded from the benefits of a wealthy society, and then forced to bear the brunt of its hyperactive penal system. De’Andre rapped to the audience while he moved angrily within the confines of his body and his prison cell.

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Incarcerated De’Andre (Christian Thompson)

Crisp white lights shone on the bright, hot day at the beginning of the production. Later on, a deep, red gel enveloped protesting students as they chanted, “We will not be moved!” A hellish heat glowed from the backdrop. Colin and De’Andre, both from similar socioeconomic situations, but standing on opposing sides of the charges, verbalized their struggles and dreams of escape under dual spotlights. Inner monologues were revealed from within a safe encasement of darkness. De’Andre’s prison cell was a potent construction of light – bars and spaces dappled across the floor, expanding outward. The lighting was effective.

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De’Andre and Colin offer insight into their living circumstances (Christian Thompson and Tyler Reilly)

Props and wardrobe included well-chosen items that reference the high school experience such as backpacks, school colors and objects labeled “Property of Cedar High.” The transition from one scene to the next relied on the creative rearrangement of a single set of chairs that served as benches, tables or lockers as required.

 

A particularly effective device was the chalk line drawn down center stage by Justin. Justin appeared to stand on the no-man’s land of middle ground in every aspect of his life. He never quite matched any group’s expectations of him nor did he find a place to fit in. It was appropriate that he was chosen to draw and balance precariously upon the line that demarcated the polarizing ideologies that surfaced after the fight and the charges. From the moment that the line was drawn, characters were always either on one side of it or the other. Never again could they arrive at a point of commonality. The easy friendship that sprung up between Colin and Raylynn, and the lasting friendship that had existed between Raylynn and Asha, were both shattered when the question of justice arose along a line of racial division. Race loyalty transcended reason.

 

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Brandon Carter as Justin

Tool for change

By the conclusion of Blood at the Root, everyone present had been pulled into a place of niggling discomfort. It was a mirror without the comfort of flattering lights. Audience members were confronted with their own prejudices and asked to question their automatic alliances. “The truth is not just a bunch of blank facts. I’m guessing the truth is in the color,” declared Toria, leaving us all with the feeling that our treasured truths may not be quite so absolute. Discourse was not only valuable at the end of this performance, but an essential release valve. The quantity and variety of social justice matters tackled in this work was staggering and risked detraction from the most prominent issue. However, this ambitious layering also served to demonstrate the magnitude and complexity of the labeling that enables us to discard some human beings while we show compassion to others. If awareness is the precursor to change, then each audience member has been handed a fundamental tool with which they can make a difference.

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