Review: ‘Blood at the Root’ at Theater Alliance

Goes to the crux of some of today's most complex contentions around race.

Raymond O. Caldwell kicks off his new Producing Artistic Directorship at Theater Alliance with a production of Dominque Morisseau’s Blood at the Root that is bursting with youthful exuberance, critical race issues, emotional authenticity, and astonishing beauty.  It is a powerfully auspicious debut.

The cast of ‘Blood at the Root’: Molly Shayna Cohen, Billie Krishawn, Charles Franklin IV, Maria Mainelli, Jordan Clark Halsey, Stephanie Wilson, Imani Branch. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Blood at the Root is set in a fictional Cedar High School in Louisiana. The plot is based on real events in 2006 at a high school in Jena, Louisiana, where there was a particular tree that only white students sat under. The day after black students tried to sit there, nooses appeared in the tree. A schoolyard fight broke out. Six black students were charged with attempted murder. That injustice prompted Morisseau to write this choreopoem, its title echoing the Billie Holliday song “Strange Fruit” (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”).

At Theater Alliance there is no such historical framing to distance us. The production boldly becomes its own indelibly real event. It all happens right now right in front of us, in a restive high school world rife with cliques and rumors. We are introduced to that awkward world in the lobby where there are defaced metal lockers and after-school activities posters. It continues in the all-gender restrooms where there is rude graffiti and prerecorded gossip.

That’s the teaser for the show that follows and starts off with a rave that throbs and rocks the house. The cast of eleven, choreographed with incessant invention by Tiffany Quinn, gyrate with an immersive fervor that immediately connects us. It is not dance as display; it is kinesthetic rapport.

The cast then addresses the audience with so-called Rules of Engagement, Morriseau’s cheeky invitation to react however the heck we want. We soon meet six named characters who along with an ensemble of five will draw us into the unsettling incident at Cedar High. Is it just a prank? Or is it racist? Don’t expect simplistic pontificating. Morriseau goes to the crux of some of today’s most complex contentions around race, pitches us right in the middle, and challenges us to take a stand.

Billie Krishawn as Raylynn and Molly Shayna Cohen as Asha in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The main character is Raylynn (the always luminous Billie Krishawn), who is anti-apathy and anti-injustice and out to break rules. Hers is a conscience that no social convention can quash. But her nervy decision to go sit under the tree where white students sit incites a blowback of race hate that eventually embroils her dear brother De’Andre (an imposing Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour).

Raylynn’s best friend is Asha (a sharply comedic, lollipop-sucking Molly Shayna Cohen), who is white but “black by association.” Asha was raised by a stepmother who was black and has always felt she “belonged” among black kids. Asha’s self-involved shallowness is an enjoyable contrast to Raylynn’s idealistic earnestness, and Krishawn and Cohen’s girlish scenes together are delightfully funny—but they take a sobering turn at the point Asha’s true loyalty to Raylynn is tested.

Stephanie Wilson as Toria and Deimoni Brewington as Justin in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Parallel to Raylynn’s fearless rule-breaking is the fearless truth-telling of a white character named Toria, a radical investigative journalist for the student newspaper. Her foil is Justin, the moderate, wrapped-tight editor of the paper, who is black and insistent that Toria cover innocuous topics, not incendiary ones. The scenes between Stephanie Wilson as Toria and Deimoni Brewington as Justin deliver some of the play’s most electrical high tension, as when Toria, chiding Justin for his timidity, says, “You’re more invisible than me and I’m damn near a ghost.” But wait for it when Justin lets loose with his monolog about existing “in the cracks”—and Brewington nearly stops the show with it.

Billie Krishawn as Raylynn and Paul Roeckell as Colin in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Raylynn becomes sorta-kinda friendly with Colin, a white football player who is both a jock and gay. Colin is thus both target and agent of animus, and with his story arc—delineated with increasing intensity by Paul Roeckell—Morisseau takes us to unexpectedly unexamined places where issues of identity, affinity, and justice do not sort themselves out tidily.

The way Choreographer Quinn augments the drama is breathtaking, as when Toria sits at her laptop and reads her report of the arrest and imprisonment of the six young black men and six actors lie around her on the floor conveying their anguish through movement.

Stephanie Wilson as Toria and Ensemble in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson sets the action against a back wall of graffitied lockers (which hold surprises) upon a floor of classroom-colored square tiles. It’s somehow everything bleak and banal about high school recollected and real again. But Lighting Designer Alberto Segarra does a visual blizzard on it, from dance-off to prison. Projections Designer Kelly Colburn creates arresting effects on it, from documentary news footage to a flurry of texted rumors, all amplified by Sound Designer Tony Starnes. And Costume Designer Amy MacDonald seems to have raided some really cool and quirky teenagers’ closets and found exactly the backpack for each.

The Ensemble—Imani Branch, Charles Franklin IV, Jordan Clark Halsey, Maria Mainelli, Alex Turner—are exquisitely integrated into the production and a pleasure to watch. Director Caldwell’s eye-popping and thought-provoking vision is also well served by Assistant Directors Aria Velz and Timothy Thompson.

The play’s dissection of racial tensions in a high school is chilling. The production’s cast and design are thrilling. Blood at the Root at Theater Alliance is not to be missed.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, with no intermission.

Blood at the Root plays through March 24, 2019, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.