Theater Review: Blood At The Root

Jan 30, 2020

Credit Emily Duguay / WMU Theatre

The Western Michigan University Theatre’s production of Blood at the Root is based on actual events in a small southern town. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Dominique Morisseau’s script is about more than what happened after three nooses threatening black students were found hanging from a tree at a Louisiana high school fifteen years ago.

As the title suggests, this 90-minute play is really about the root causes of racism and intolerance. What makes the evening so powerful is the way director Mark Liermann’s talented ensemble brings Morisseau’s script to life within the confines of the York Arena stage.

The play opens with a chorus of students reclining on the school grounds. Their pointed remarks about the heat suggest an oppressive atmosphere and an elevated temperature in the relationship between the black students baking in the sun and the clique of white students lounging in the shade of privilege beneath the revered oak a few yards away.

Tensions in the hot afternoon quickly boil over. The chorus of black and white students takes to its feet and begins stomping and chanting in synchronized rhythm. The threatening sounds and angular movements of torsos and arms soon resemble a war dance, like a Maori Haka.

And it is this sudden rising up onto the rough haunches of ritualized posturing that's the play's key metaphor. Although Morisseau dissects the tribal nature of racism with a scalpel one moment and attacks it with a sledgehammer the next, she consistently holds the ugly face of prejudice up to the clear light of day for all to see and learn from.

Credit Andrew Robins / WMUK

The playwright hones in on her subject through a series of duo scenes in which characters engage in vigorous debate over issues that divide them. The words they use are not the dry, detached discourse of a high school forensic society. They are heated and visceral, born at the gritty core of each character. The young actors in the cast do not shrink from rendering a full measure of passion behind each line they deliver.

After a fight in the school cafeteria sends a white student to the emergency room and lands black students in jail, Chloe Davis as black student activist Raylynn confronts Colin, the high school quarterback who is injured. She presents a spirited case for acquitting her accused brother and pleads for mercy. Benjamin Leeka, as Colin, speaks quietly and forcefully as he reveals the slur that threatens to expose his sexuality. Each performer demonstrates that his or her character has a visible and justifiable stake in the outcome of this conflict.

Because of the sympathetic portrayal of both black and white characters caught in the middle, Morisseau’s tone is never preachy or one-sided.

Sharyena Hunt as Asha, Raylynn’s white friend, is asked to choose between attending a black student protest and a promise she made to her parents. In a heated exchange with Raylynn, Hunt is effective in showing the anguish and consequences generated by her decision.

Similarly, Delanti Hall, as Justin, the school newspaper’s black editor, faces tough choices in deciding what to print regarding the unrest around him. He grudgingly endures the emotional taunts of a white fellow student. Molly Jass, as Toria, the firebrand crusading reporter, questions Justin’s loyalty to the people she wrongly associates him with.

Hall delivers an insightful response to her challenge. He denies ever having had any support for his own identity, from either blacks or whites and vehemently defends his choices as editor. Walking the line between segments of a divided community is his only path to survival.

Like other performers who portray those locked in the standoff that threatens the community, Hall and Jass are believable opponents and present characters firmly grounded in the value systems that brought them to the edge of this gulf.

A key element in the success of this production is that it demonstrates precisely how we got to where we were as a society in 2006, when this incident occurred.

And as twelve new nooses, one for each performer, are revealed hanging from the tree in blood-colored light at the final curtain, Morisseau suggests that’s where we still are today.

With its unflinching efforts to shine a light on the roots of racial discord in the past and the present, Blood at the Root, in the words of Pete Seeger’s civil rights anthem, keeps the audience's “Eyes on the Prize”.

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