BWW Review: BLOOD AT THE ROOT, Raleigh Little Theatre
Plays and musicals are often written about racial incidents that have happened in the distant past, like THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS or the fictional RAGTIME. It's less often that they are written about more contemporary events like the true story of the Jena Six, six black students charged with attempted murder after a school fight in Louisiana in 2006. But Dominique Morisseau's BLOOD AT THE ROOT at Raleigh Little Theatre tackles the topic with respect and thoughtfulness, creating a narrative that examines the situation from many sides of the student body of the high school where it occurred.
The play follows several students at a school where events escalate to a fight that lands six young black men in prison. It centers around Raylynn: a young black woman determined to shake up the status quo by running for class president. One day, she decides to sit under a tree in the school yard that only white kids sit under which seemingly kicks into motion a trail of events that will land her own brother, DeAndre, in trouble. Meanwhile, radical budding journalist Toria tries to convince school paper editor Justin to print her controversial articles that address real world issues. Justin is dealing with his own internal conflict, as people's expectations that he will have an opinion on the events at the school because of his skin color war with his natural tendency to keep his head down and be invisible.
The show was written by Dominique Morriseau, who was nominated for a Tony Award last year for the book of AIN'T TOO PROUD - THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS. It was originally commissioned for Penn State School of Theatre and is clearly a good play for a group of students to perform. Raleigh Little Theatre's production, directed by Lormarev Jones, is staged in their black box theatre which brings an intimacy to the piece that feels appropriate for one set in a high school.
This very moving play has much to say about the miscarriage of justice, racial double standards, black family life, and the type of discrimination that still exists today. The show does contain some strong language, racial slurs, and symbols of violence. It also contains a surprising amount of humor which is woven into the heavier topics very well. It's striking how relevant many of its themes are to events going on right now. It's difficult not to think about the recent hiring of a new SNL comedian and his rapid removal for past racially insensitive jokes when one character remarks, "Just 'cause you call it a joke doesn't make it one."
The cast are very talented particularly considering their young age; most of them are in high school or college. Their being close to the age of their characters definitely adds something to the piece and makes it more believable. Aysia Slade is particularly great as Raylynn whose determination to make a change morphs from something as small as sitting under a tree to fighting a corrupt justice system. Carl Straub skillfully plays Colin, a new transfer student who gets caught up in the strife at school and whose focus on his own concerns keeps him from seeing the role he plays in events at large.
Roman Lawrence brings ethos to the role of Justin as he struggles to maintain the role he has carved out for himself in the high school, especially in the face of Toria's insistence he take a stand. Brynna Rosenberg is easily a standout of the piece as Toria, and not just for her bright blue colored hair. Her burning passion for using journalism to call attention to the wrongs in the world and to help people is palpable across the theatre.
The scenic design by Kylee Silvas was great, particularly the large and surprisingly life-like tree that made up the main set. The additional set pieces used helped the audience keep track of where the characters were without being obtrusive or overwhelming the small space. Jeremy David Clos's costume design felt realistic to high schoolers and helped define the different high school cliques in a very recognizable way. The song and movement didn't always feel like it fit seamlessly into the show, but it was well performed.
"Apathy: ain't nothing worse than it," Raylynn tells the audience towards the beginning of the play's 90-minute run. It's a poignant message, particularly during the ongoing discord that we face as a country today. The show provides relevant commentary on racial tension, divide, and discrimination while examining the issues from multiple angles and never feeling preachy. Blood at the Root runs in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre until October 13.
Photo Credit: Areon Mobasher