BY ALAN SHERROD
“The trees of the South bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…”
“Strange Fruit” – Abel Meeropol, recorded by Billie Holiday (1939)
Dominique Morisseau’s play in 2014 blood at the root takes the song’s lyrical allusion and runs with it, casting aside the fragile everyday fabric that masks the insidious nature of cultural racism. The play, referred to as a “choreopoem” by Morisseau, was commissioned by Penn State University as a developmental exercise for theater students.
Now in a gripping production directed by Tracey Copeland Halter at Clarence Brown Theater’s Lab Theater, blood at the root is based on a real-life event at a high school in Jena, Louisiana in 2006. Illustrating the futility of racial disparity and double standards, a certain tree on the high school campus that had been seen as a dark spot” reserved for whites” was later spotted with nooses dangling after black students sat underneath. Subsequently, school fights broke out and six black students were charged with attempted murder.
Morisseau took the basic facts of the incident and allowed the reality of it to shape a symbolic narrative that is both poetic and harshly truthful, which intentionally plays with dramatic ambiguity by leaving many questions of responsibility to the public. The playwright’s cast of six named actors and additional ensemble members acts as a cross-section of Cedar High School students, an otherwise typical high school world of cliques and clubs, friendships and breakups, identity claims and sexual confusion, and the facts and rumors of an adolescent social world.
The character of Raylynn (a dynamic Jasmine R. Handy), a young girl convinced of her duty and determined to follow her conscience to right the wrongs of racial disparity and injustice, leads the way through the storyline. It is his decision to sit under the tree that triggers the reaction of hatred that eventually envelops his school, his friends, his classmates and even his brother. De’Andre (LoRen Seagrave).
Setting up a personal controversy is Asha (Bethany Moon), Raylynn’s best friend at school. Asha is white, but likes to pretend she’s “black by association” because of her friendship with Raylynn and others. However, Asha lacks the strength of character and ability to second guess her motives that Raylynn does, a fact that ultimately leads to their friendship being tested.
On a separate track, the incident and the school controversy have created an opportunity for aspiring student investigative journalist Toria (Abigail McCarter), who tries to push forward the serious stories published by the newspaper. school and its editor, Justin (Alan Tonney). Justin, regularly turning down Toria’s articles because of their semi-controversial content, has accepted his role as a conformist in the safe middle ground of non-controversial topics. On the other hand, Toria sees her responsibility as quite the opposite. Their debate culminates in a serious and explosive confrontation that sheds light on the question of how the various characters adjust to their visibility – or lack thereof – in the school community and in life. Ultimately, it comes down to whether they accept or refuse their responsibilities in the face of challenges.
New soccer student/athlete Colin (Peter Mayer Klepchick) and Raylynn discover they have the basics of a friendship, until Raylynn realizes Colin is gay. In the school social world made up of insults and jokes, of acceptance and rejection, this places him in an unstable situation where he is both the subject and the predicate of school controversy.
Along with fellow cast members Guthrie Butler and Nevaeh Daniel, the ensemble is moved onto the Lab Theater stage by director Copeland with an angular, geometric rhythm that transforms the group of individuals into a representation of the school community. Visually, Copeland opted for minimal, unostentatious production through set designer Kirsten Jolly: a brick wall supporting the play area with just a few chairs for props – and, of course, a beautifully crafted symbolic tree tends hand, its gnarled tentacle-like branches. reminding us that even the innocent can turn against humanity. Costume designer Katie Carrillo nailed the characters’ personalities with wardrobe choices; Lighting designer Kaylin Gess scaled the play space up and down as the characters faced personal isolation. In-your-face music and some brilliant ambient sounds came from sound designer Amoirie Perteet.
blood at the root continues at the CBT Lab Theater on the UTK campus this week
Tuesday to Saturday (March 8-12) at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday (March 13) at 2 p.m.
Click here for tickets and information.