Director Michael A. Shepperd and the ensemble cast brought the Lousiana HEAT to Atwater Village Theatre in the West Coast premiere of Blood at the Root by playwright Dominique Morisseau.
Blood at the Root is inspired by the true story of the Jena 6 and how racial tensions erupted at a Louisiana high school and the fight of a student journalist’s efforts with her editor to document the situation in the school’s newspaper, authentically.
“Martha Demson and Amanda Weir, are the co-artistic directors of the theatre, and they asked me to direct a play for them this season and when they came to me with this one I was excited to be asked because Open Fist Theatre is such a renowned theatre in Los Angeles,” said Shepperd.
The play is set in 2006 but Shepperd was intent on directing it as if it were set in 2023.
“I wanted to approach it as if it were 2023 but with the 2006 elements…and also to make sure it was BLACK!,” said Shepperd. “A diverse audience will see it and enjoy it but they won’t get the same experience as Black folks will because I directed this for Black folks.”
And you could feel it. From the music that was played as we waited for the show to start to the words, tone, and inflection in the actor’s voices, this play is authentic to its Lousiaina origin.
The ensemble cast stars Malik Bailey, Deandra Bernardo, Emma Bruno, Nychelle Hawk, Nicholas Heard, Jeremy Reiter II, Caroline Rose, Jack David Sharpe, Grace Soens, Amber Tiara, Azeem Vecchio and they showed their acting range in bringing a tense subject matter to the stage while making it palpable for the audience to consume.
I was so excited to see this play once I read that it was being directed by Sheppard and that it is based on the true story of the Jena 6.
The play follows Raylynn and her brother D who recently lost their mother and attend a local high school where the students are self-segregated by race. D dreams of playing professional football and getting out of the “hood” while Ray dreams of being the school’s FIRST black school president. Her bestie is a white girl, whose father married a black woman so she feels “black” until it becomes more comfortable to fall back on her whiteness.
“Old Glory”, an aged oak tree, is a silent character that establishes the color lines at the school. It is a source of shade, to beat the heat, but is only occupied by White students.
Racial tensions spill over when Ray decides she will “break the rules” and sit under it.
The next day, three nooses are discovered hanging from the tree — sending shockwaves through the school. The administration dismisses the incident as a thoughtless prank.
When it was decided the black students were going to protest but Ray’s friend didn’t find it a good idea.
“What if it really was just a prank with no racial motivation?” she asks after declining to stand up for the racial injustice.
In stark contrast, when six Black teenagers are accused of beating a White schoolmate during a subsequent fight, attempted murder charges are sought.
It is well documented that Black people are judged more harshly by their reactions to racism than those who perpetuate it.
Simultaneously, you have the student journalist, a white girl, who comes from a lineage of abolitionists who doesn’t understand why the racial tensions on the campus concern her more than her editor who is of mixed race. He would rather publish “puff pieces” about the school’s vending machine locations than delve into the racial tensions on campus that could threaten to shut down the student-run newspaper if it’s reported on.
She draws a connection between Ray’s sitting under the tree, the nooses, and the protest as being the leadup to the fight and wants to document it. She isn’t surprised that after she submits her story it is promptly rejected.
Shepperd has done a remarkable job of bridging the gap between 2006 and 2023 showing the only thing that’s changed is the year.
The play’s title comes from the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” in which Holiday sings, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”
Blood at the Root runs September 9 through October 28. Performances take place at 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday (dark Saturday, Oct. 7); at 7 p.m. every other Sunday beginning September 10; and at 3 p.m. every other Sunday beginning Sept. 17. There will be one additional performance on Monday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $30.
Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles, CA 90039. Parking is free in the ATX (Atwater Crossing) parking lot one block south of the theater.
To purchase tickets and for more information call (323) 882-6912 or go to www.openfist.org.