There are no easy answers in “Blood at the Root,” but there are a lot of good questions. Written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by guest director Steve H. Broadnax III, the Michigan State University Department of Theatre production is a timely and timeless exploration of racism, perception and truth. In an era of “alternative facts” and “Black Lives Matter,” “Blood at the Root” is powerful and engaging must-see theatre.
In case there is any question about the themes in “Blood at the Root,” the show takes its name from a lyric in “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song famously sung by Billie Holliday. The fictional play is inspired by a racially charged 2006 incident at Jena High School in Louisiana. Several nooses were hung on a tree behind the school, which led to six black students brutally beating a white student. The six black students were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, which was later reduced to battery. In the play, the racially diverse cast plays students who are living with and responding to the events as they unfold. Their conversations and monologues drive the action for 90 straight minutes.
The student ensemble — Kristy Allen, Gary Patterson, Karen Vance, Jacob Covert, Greg Hunter and Jen English — brings passion and preparation to the characters. Allen plays Raylynn, a righteous and outspoken student who decides to run for class president. Her brother, De’Andre (Patterson), is a star on the football team. Raylynn and De’Andre are black, but Raylynn’s best friend, Asha (English), is white but “acts black.” Raylynn also befriends Colin (Covert), a white transfer student and quarterback of the football team. Meanwhile, budding student journalist Toria (Vance), who is white, spars with her editor, Justin (Hunter), who is black, over the quality and content of the school newspaper.
The color of the character’s skin never defines them, but it does inform the conversations and assumptions the characters make about one another. For example, the black students see a symbolic threat in the nooses, while the white students see a harmless prank. That instinctual awareness — or lack of — creates a rift between Raylynn and Asha and provides the primary thread for Toria’s investigation.
“Blood at the Root” premiered at Penn State in 2014, and it was selected by the Department of Theatre last year. The play wasn’t written or staged as a response to Donald Trump’s election. Yet the themes in the play feel especially relevant. When Toria tries to write a story about the school events, she’s lambasted by her editor for breaching objectivity by writing more than the facts. The play asks questions that our media is currently struggling with. Does reporting only the facts tell the whole story? Or does strict, neutral objectivity sometimes de-claw the truth and, in the process, protect the status quo?
Broadnax beautifully paces the show, allowing space for characters to shout or to breathe and seamlessly bridging scenes with effortless transitions. Unlike many student productions, this show has a rhythm that keep the audience engaged.
In one of the best scenes, the cast becomes a group of students passing along the rumor of the school beating like a modern game of Telephone. In an era of political correctness, even simple observations like “I heard” and “I saw” turn into a sticky soup of “appropriate” racial labels. Like an Internet comment board, the scene shows how good intentions can get buried in an echo chamber of half-truths, assumptions and ignorance.
Scenic designer Mike Merluzzi’s sparse set, simply turning the theater’s four pillars into brick walls, a tree and school lockers, leaves the floor clear for the actors to move and even dance. Lighting designer Peter Verhaeghe provides nice imagery, forming shapes and colors to fill in what the set leaves blank.
If you’re looking for simple solutions or sloganeering, prepare to leave frustrated. Morisseau avoids distilling any of the issues down into Facebook meme-worthy content. But this stellar production does challenge the audience to have honest conversations about race and privilege and the fact that these issues won’t go away if we avoid the discussion.
“Blood at the Root”
MSU Department of Theatre
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8 and Thursday, Feb. 9; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10 and Saturday, Feb. 11; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12
$15/$13 seniors and faculty/$10 students
Arena Theatre (in the basement of MSU Auditorium)
542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com