Pictured Ireon Roach. Photo by Evan Hanover.
Originally a commission for Penn State graduate acting students and inspired by a real event, Dominique Morisseau’s BLOOD AT THE ROOT examines the roots of prejudice closer to where these lessons are learned — at high school. Set at the fictional Cedar High in Louisiana, there is an unspoken rule: only the white students are allowed to sit in the shade of the “old devoted,” an old tree on campus. When Raylynn, a bright young black woman breaks this rule, the response divides the school. On one side are those who resist, on another those who dismiss the action as a joke, and in the middle are those just trying to survive. The Yard and Jackalope’s co-production of this compelling story is one of the most important pieces of theater in Chicago right now.
The Yard’s mission is to provide “professional theatrical experiences that immerse students in every aspect of the Chicago storefront theatre-making process.” The professional artists that have mentored and collaborated with this group for this production have served them well. Even with a professional team, this style of play — a choreopoem — presents a directorial challenge. It relies heavily on the combination of spoken word, rhythm and movement to “highlight and recontextualize” social issues and explore “the grey areas of politics and social culpability.” But despite the confines of The Frontier space, directors Joel Ewing and Will Kiley have nailed the style, employing smart and specific choices to delineate space and time. To further dynamize these choices, coaches Mykele Deville and Kiki Layne have nurtured the poetry and movement of this piece. Not only are these portions cohesively integrated into the narrative but they serve as the most moving moments in the production.
Beyond theatrical skill, the act of teen characters being performed by teen actors – most of whom are still in high school – is potent. While some of the acting does lack maturity of technique, the closeness in age makes up for this with the authority of experience. There are many strong moments and performances. The seeming effortlessness in which Ireon Roach embodies the protagonist Raylynn is with the warmth and ease of an actor beyond her years, as is Brian Baren’s control of his character’s emotional journey. As on-the-fence Justin, Tevion Lanier’s explosive monologue towards the end is arguably the most impacting moment of a play of so many such moments.
This play, this production, and these performers present a timely and necessary edict to connect with each other and to challenge the rules we don’t talk about. As BLOOD AT THE ROOT’s budding journalist Toria states “If we don’t know how to connect to a struggle besides our own, we’re all screwed.”
BLOOD AT THE ROOT runs through April 29th. For more information visit jackalopetheatre.org.