“It’s the rules, it’s the rules,” chants De’Andre (played by Shae’Kell Butler) alone in a jail cell, in “Blood at the Root.” He’s remembering a song that his mother, now deceased, taught him as a child. Hands in the air, out of your pockets, keep your anger in check. This, perhaps, is the crux at the heart of “Blood at the Root.”
The play is inspired by the events surrounding the so-called “Jena 6” in 2006, in which six young black male students were arrested for the assault of a white male student. But the play isn’t about the specifics of the Jena events, rather it’s about the difference in how the world and the justice system treat black youth and white youth.
“Blood at the Root” was born in a college workshop, written for Penn State graduate acting students by Dominique Morrisseau, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2018. It’s interesting to see how UNO takes on the mantle. “Blood in the Root” may be set in a high school, but the UNO Theatre decided not to bother with the artifice of school hallways. Instead, the stage is white, speckled with smudges and covered in roots. Or are they veins? It’s hard to tell in the blood-red haze of lighting that the stage is bathed in before the play begins, amid the brassy tones of New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band.
Music plays a key part in the play’s narrative, the dialogue interspersed with movement, rhythm and music. Morrisseau refers to the play as a “choreopoem.” The tree, a key figure in the play, provides shade, but only to the white students until Raylynn (played by Kylah Calloway), a black student, decides to find some relief under its branches. The next day, three nooses hang from those same branches—branches formed by the limbs of the ensemble in a living, breathing tree. When De’Andre sings alone in his jail cell, having been arrested after fighting with white student, Colin, who goes free, his words are accompanied by the rhythmic stepping (an African-American form of percussive dance) of the ensemble.
Rhythm guides the cadence of the dialogue and monologues of the play, appropriate for a play concerned by the rich inner lives of these high schoolers, finding their way not only in the tumultuous times of adolescence, cliques and romance but also navigating the fault lines of racial tension, the justice system, privilege and guilt.
The play is a collaboration between UNO Theatre and the Union for Contemporary Art as part of the UNO Theatre’s “Connections Series.” Denise Chapman, the director, is not only an adjunct theatre professor at UNO but also was formerly a directing and acting fellow at the Union in 2013. The play splits open the conversation of “who gets to be considered a child,” a large part of the conversations Chapman wants the community to have. Studies from as early as the 1980s and 1990s “demonstrated that black juveniles were detained and confined at higher rates compared with white youth, and that black youth were more likely to be sent to correctional facilities compared with white youth, who were more likely to be sent to psychiatric hospitals,” according to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
“I think that this conversation around the justice system and how black and brown bodies get treated within it has been a conversation since the beginning of the justice system,” Chapman said. “It definitely is something that we continue to struggle with today. It’s unfortunate that we can look at a story that is almost 13 years old and know that it could be happening right now. And we wouldn’t be surprised.”
Boys will be boys, but “Blood in the Root” exposes how that’s not the case when the boys happen to be black.