Question preconceptions: Prejudice, racial injustice influence change in PSU’s ‘Blood at the Root’

For the CDTMarch 21, 2014 

  • if you go

    What: “Blood at the Root”

    When: 7:30 p.m. March 25 and 27 (previews); 7:30 p.m. March 28 (opening night); 7:30 p.m. March 29 and 31 and April 1-5; 2 p.m. March 29 and April 5

    Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, 146 S. Allen St., State College

    Info: www.theatre.psu.edu, 865-7586

Blood at the Root” is an explosive new drama that explores the escalation of racial tensions when a student challenges the status quo at an integrated but racially segregated high school in the conservatively charged South. The drama focuses on six black Louisiana teens convicted of beating a white student after a noose was found hanging from a tree and addresses propaganda, individual freedoms and racial inequality in the judicial system.

Written by Dominique Morisseau, “Blood at the Root” was inspired by the Jena Six, the teens convicted in the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School, in 2006. The conviction of the Jena Six was cited as an example of racial injustice in the United States, due to a belief that the defendants had been charged with too-serious offenses and had been treated unfairly. Exposing the miscarriage of justice and racial double standards in a bold portrayal, “Blood at the Root” also examines the crisis in relations between men and women of all classes and, as a result, the shattered state of black family life.

“Blood at the Root” is directed by Steve Broadnax, an associate professor of theater at Penn State. He said the overall concept for “Blood at the Root” is that “truth and reconciliation lead to positive change.”

“I want the audience to walk away realizing the power of truth and reconciliation,” he said. “To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ ”

“Blood at the Root” explores the experiences of a group of high school students desperately trying to define themselves and navigate around those who do not share their self-identification. These students embark on a journey where they learn there is no progress without struggle and the struggle is embedded in uniting as a whole despite their differences.

“This isn’t a Louisiana story, or an African-American story, or a high school story; this is ‘our’ story,” said Penn State MFA candidate Allison Jaye, who plays Cedar High School’s newspaper reporter, Toria. “This is happening here in State College, in Pittsburgh, in the Deep South, in South Africa, in France, in Venezuela, in the Ukraine, everywhere. Every single country in the world has to face what they call ‘the other.’ ”

What Jaye hopes is for the audience to go beyond deciding that the piece is just about race.

“It’s not just about race,” she said. “Race is a heavyweight vehicle for the themes that ‘Blood at the Root’ brings up, which I believe to be ‘challenge and change.’ We must challenge in order to change, but we can’t challenge if we don’t see.”

Commissioned for the third-year graduate acting class at Penn State, the show went on a South African tour last summer and the branch campuses this semester. After the main stage run in State College ends in April, the show will return to South Africa for a second tour this summer, followed by a monthlong run in Scotland.

After each performance the cast will conduct talkbacks with the audience, giving people who see the play an opportunity to participate and continue the conversation that’s important to each and every one of us.

“My hope is that everyone can identify with a character up there,” said third-year acting student Brandon Carter, who plays Justin.

“That the way we have sustained hatred towards others for our race and sexuality (for hundreds of years) is not OK anymore,” he said. “It’s difficult and it’s pretty uncomfortable, but we should make deliberate, conscious choices in the right direction. That’s the only way we make progress.”

Jaye said she wants audiences to see themselves, their friends, their families, their kids and their communities in this play, and realize that these are things that aren’t just happening in other parts of the world, but are happening in their own backyards as well.

“The story’s specificity creates a universality that charges the audience with a social responsibility of dealing with ‘the other’ in order to invoke change,” Ayers said. “How do we judge and treat people who are different? How does that judgment keep us separate and void of progress? Audiences should learn about themselves, see a side to someone they wouldn’t normally talk to, and question their beliefs.”

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