“Blood at the Root” play inspired by Jena Six case, examines systematic racial injustice
Racially motivated criminal injustice is the topic of a powerful drama by University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance alumna Dominique Morisseau, to be presented by the Department of Theatre & Drama this month.
Titled “Blood at the Root,” and based on a true incident that took place in Louisiana in 2006, the play will be performed Nov. 16-19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre at the Walgreen Drama Center on U-M’s North Campus.
“Blood at the Root” was commissioned for the 2014 graduate acting class at Penn State University and was inspired by the events surrounding the “Jena Six,” six black teenagers convicted in the beating of a white student in Jena, La., during a period of high tension after three nooses had been hung from a tree on their high school’s property.
While the case was pending, it was often cited as an example of racial injustice in the United States due to a belief that the defendants had initially been charged with too-serious offenses and had been treated unfairly.
“Blood at the Root” explores the experiences of a group of high school students desperately trying to define themselves and navigate around those who identify themselves differently. Within the journey of these students, Morisseau also addresses propaganda, individual freedoms and racial inequality in the judiciary system.
In addressing trenchant issues of race and social justice, “Blood at the Root” offers a unique opportunity to open much-needed dialogue on these topics. The Department of Theatre & Drama is seeking to engage the student body at U-M, as well as high school students and community members, to encourage open discourse.
Each performance will be followed by a moderated discussion featuring members of the cast, artistic staff and special guests, including one of the Jena 6, Bryant Purvis, who is now an activist and author. The “talk backs” provide an opportunity for audience members to join with the artists and experts in processing the issues raised in the play. They are free and open to the public.
Through a partnership with U-M’s Youth Civil Rights Academy, administered by the School of Social Work, area high school students have been invited to attend “Blood at the Root” and a detailed curriculum guide has been made available to their teachers. In addition, the play will be presented Nov. 16 at Renaissance High School in Detroit, which will also followed by a moderated discussion.
A panel discussion, which is free to the public, will take place 12:30-2 p.m. Nov. 17 at Stamps Auditorium in the Walgreen Drama Center. Moderated by Freyja Harris, SMTD’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, the panel is titled “Minorities, Social Justice and Police Enforcement: An Open Discussion.” Panelists will include Purvis, U-M professors Jose Casas and Eve Brensike Primus, U-M student government president Anushka Sarkar and a member of the U-M police force.
The play is directed by Stori Ayers, an actress and director who has a long history with the work, having been a graduate acting student at Penn State when the play was commissioned. She toured as an actor with the show in the U.S. and internationally; this is her first time directing the play.
“‘Blood at the Root’ is a devised piece of theater that looks at social prejudice and systemic injustice,” Ayers said. “What makes this piece fly is ‘hip-hop theater.’ The music, sound and lights are huge elements in setting the world and making it a fast-moving play with a beat.
“There are also a lot of big statements within the design elements, such as the illusion of the flag as our backdrop. The play hinges on terms of what we say we believe and stand for in America, which is not necessarily reflected in how we carry out rulings in our justice system.”
Morisseau, a Detroit native, is a fast-rising playwright whose latest play, “Pipeline,” debuted at the Lincoln Center Theater this summer. She has written a three-play cycle, “The Detroit Project,” which explores key moments in the history of the Motor City. The cycle includes “Detroit ’67” (winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama), “Paradise Blue” and “Skeleton Crew.”
She is a Jane Chambers Playwriting Award honoree, a two-time NAACP Image Award recipient, a commendation honoree for the Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association, winner of the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, the Weissberger Award for Playwriting, the U-M-Detroit Center Emerging Leader Award, a Lark/PoNY (Playwrights of New York) Fellow, and an Obie Award winner.
Joining Ayers on the creative team is scenic and lighting designer Justin Lang (“L’Heure Espagnole”/”Gianni Schicchi”). The costume design is by guest designer Emilio Sosa. Sound designer Socrates Papageorgiou is a senior at U-M pursuing a dual degree in computer engineering and sound engineering. Christopher Campbell, a senior musical theatre major serves as choreographer.
Performances of “Blood at the Root” take place at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16; 8 p.m. Nov. 17 and 18: and 2 p.m. Nov. 19. Ticket prices are $30 general admission and $12 for students with ID. Tickets are available at the Michigan League Ticket Office, by phone at 734-764-2538 or online at tickets.smtd.umich.edu.