Youthful characters cut through race
in Next act’s riveting ‘blood at the root’
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published Feb. 3, 2019
There are so many ideas swirling around in the teen-aged conversations of “Blood at the Root” at Next Act Theatre, directed by Marti Gobel. Ideas about race and identity, thoughts and ideas that illustrate just how many shades of gray there are to the topics.
And all this is easily digestible, wonderfully staged, with scenes introduced through movement and dance (Gobel is Movement and Stomp Director; Alicia Ride, Choreographer), poetry,Kemet Gobel’s original music and rap that keep the uninterrupted show flowing. The main prop is a huge, gnarled tree, wrapped with rope and slightly raised, at the back of the stage. Through Jason Fassl’s scenic and lighting design, the characters and scenes are enhanced.
Basing it on the Jena Six events, writer Dominique Morisseau has put a lot of meat on the bones of this play and given the six characters loads to debate. The beauty of it is, the play doesn’t seem preachy. It’s a bunch of kids trying to articulate just how they feel about blackness and whiteness, and, in the process, illuminating a very murky subject in a way that often eludes adults. There is no right or wrong here. Instead, Morisseau wants the audience to hear these different voices, understand where they are coming from. And maybe then they will not be so quick to judge when these sorts of stories make the media rounds.
Gobel starts with an outstanding cast, each member creating a unique and memorable character responding to the events at their Louisiana high school in 2006-07. Their conversations are often in pairs, which makes their thoughts and differences clear.
The opening features clever, in sync movements by the cast that highlight Morisseau’s poetic style as the six hunker about, complaining about the excessive heat.
Raylynn (Chantae Miller), who is black, has decided this is the day she is going to shake things up. It is the anniversary of her mother’s death, and she feels a new purpose as she and her brother, De’Andre (Justin Lee), navigate high school. She’s going to run for class president. “Nobody like me ever run for class president,” she says citing her mother’s words, “Nothing more selfish than sittin’ around sucking up air.”
She bounces everything off her white friend Asha (April Paul), whose past gives her a unique perspective on both races. Raylynn also thinks of another way to break new ground: She decides to sit under this big, old oak tree on school grounds – where only a white clique gathers – with some of her friends.
The next day, there are three nooses hanging from the tree. A protest follows.
We also meet Justin (Ibraheem Farmer), the unassuming editor of the school newspaper, and Toria (Grace DeWolf), a senior reporter who wants to “write something amazing” and “not get lost in the abyss of nobodies.” So she writes a story about birth control for the paper, which Justin, who just wants to fly under the radar, rejects. Their youthful editor/reporter relationship creates another interesting and fiery dynamic.
As does the relationship between Colin (Casey Hoekstra), a recently transferred Caucasian senior who’s the quarterback on the football team. Colin, too, has a unique set of experiences that forms his ideas and creates another layer for the characters to ponder.
When he gets into a fight at school that involves several black students, including De’Andre, a new round of debate ensues, especially when the promising careers of students are in jeopardy.
Morisseau cleverly describes the six characters’ thoughts about the fight in a beautifully executed waltz-like dance, with characters changing partners as they describe their feelings on the incident – mama jokes, homophobic insults, racial slurs.
This is juxtaposed with the students responsible for hanging the nooses in the tree. Asha tells Raylynn, “Maybe not get all riled up about it.” Was it just a stupid prank? Were the punishments fair for those involved in both incidents?
There is something simple, yet pure and profound, in what these kids say. You listen to them because they seem real; they cut to the chase of a very dense issue.
The centerpiece of the show features Lee’s character, De’Andre, effectively describing how people’s thoughts on race are formed, who we are taught to hate, etc. “We all got roots,” he explains. Lee’s De’Andre also delivers a riveting rap piece on rules to help him through situations, such as “hold back the rage.”
Farmer, too, gives us insight into his character, Justin, as he rages about trying to stay “studious, focused,” while trying to straddle his high school world of two races that criticizes him at every turn.
My favorite scenes involve Miller and Paul. Miller handles her Raylynn like a prize-fighter, jabbing, punching, trying for that knockout punch as she pours out all her emotions to friends and family, who counter with jabs of their own. Her passion is palpable. Morisseau has given her such good material that Miller crafts so well with proclamations such as, “Every time someone’s hurt, they want to hurt back.” Miller’s Raylynn is a fireball, with no intention to sit around and suck up air.
While Raylynn seems restlessly ready for a break-out moment, Paul’s Asha has found a comfort zone that straddles black and white. Says Raylynn, “Her boyfriend’s any race she feels like that day.” Their relationship is quite touching, so watchable and relatable to young audiences.
It was heartening to see a group of high school students at this Saturday performance, which surely provided much for them to ponder on issues they often face.
If you go:
Who: Next Act Theatre
What: “Blood at the Root”
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee
Info/Tickets: nextact.org; 414-278-0765