The Jena Six were black, high school-aged teenagers in Jena Louisiana who were charged with the beating of Justin Barker, a white teenager at Jena high school. Days after the beating, a student asked to sit under a tree that was normally reserved for white students. The request was met with nooses being hung from the tree. Before the 2006 beating, a number of events happened at the school that escalated racial tension. It was often cited by some media commentators as an example of racial injustice in the United States.
Blood at the Root is a play put on by UNO’s theatre department that portrays the events of the incident. It references multiple heart-wrenching events such as the scene “Flick my pen,” in which there are nooses hung around the town, and as the students protest the district attorney says, “I can take away your life with the flick of my pen.” This is almost verbatim what the district attorney said during the actual case. The play lets “inspired by” and “true facts” coexist beautifully.
The story is told from the point of view of the children, and the six select characters are based on real people: Robert Bailey, then aged 17; Mychal Bell, then 16; Carwin Jones, then 18; Bryant Purvis, then 17; Jesse Ray Beard, then 14; and Theo Shaw, then 17. The story showcases people from different backgrounds to make sure everyone sees themselves in a character.
One of the most important things to note in the play is how sex and race intertwine. In the character Raylynn, we see a black student who is aware of social “rules” but sets out to break them. She is a strong go-getter who aims for the heights, even going so far as to run for class president. She spearheads the protests and goes directly to Colin to ask him to drop the charges.
Raylynn is a powerful character because she is the definition of a strong black woman. In our current world, women are seen as nurturing and soft, but Raylynn shows us that there is no certain way to be a woman. Women are strong enough to stand up for societal wrong doings, even when nobody else will.
On the other hand, we have Justin who is a nerdy black man and has trouble identifying which “side” he really belongs to, black or white. During a monologue later in the show, we find out that Justin has been called everything from weak to gay and much more. This manifests the toxic masculinity that is alive in the African American community today. He shows us that there is no certain way to be a black man, and the longer we let society’s standards hold us back, the longer it takes for us to grow. He does not fit into the hyper-masculine view of black men that is used to combat feelings of powerlessness, but he finds a way to fight for his power.
Following that, the play shows how black boys are robbed of their childhood. In the scene “Telephone game” we see De’Aundre is being arrested and is charged as an adult for attempted murder after the fight with Colin, and Colin is not charged. The struggle of being an African-American boy is not viewed in the same light of “childhood innocence” as it is with white peers, rather black boys are more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.
Although the Jena Six were not a decade defining case, they showed us that the human need for justice has always been there. Before Black Lives Matter emerged, before hashtag activism and before video recordings, black people were fighting for justice everyday. The Jena Six is just one example of black people standing up for justice.
Along with the play, Watie White’s “100 People” is highlighted in the UNO theatre library.
White took the time to draw every character in the play. The piece collaborates with over 100 artists and social activists in the Omaha metro area. All portraits were painted after the 2016 election. White’s vision was to portray how ugly politics had become and help reaffirm his faith in civil society. The artwork and play will be performed on the UNO campus from February 19-22 and at The Union for Contemporary Art on February 28 and 29 and March 1-8.