Penn State theater students will uproot show, travel the globe

The cast of “Blood at the Root” rehearses on Wednesday at the Theater Building.
The cast of “Blood at the Root” rehearses on Wednesday at the Theater Building. CDT photo

Unlike the actors in many previous plays commissioned for Penn State theater graduate students, the cast members of “Blood at the Root” will be heading abroad this summer.

The play is being performed this week and next at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center. After that, the actors have their sights on South Africa and Scotland.

Cast members performed the play in South Africa last summer during a three-week tour and received an unexpected invitation from the Market Theatre in Johannesburg to return, said Christian Thompson, who plays the character DeAndre.

“I think that speaks a lot about the piece and how powerful it really is that we’ve been invited back into this country,” he said.

The Market Theatre began in 1976 and was known for its anti-apartheid plays, according to its website; it now seeks out works “to help South Africans understand, interpret and thrive in the second decade of the country’s new democratic life.”

The play, written by New York City playwright Dominique Morisseau, is based on the “Jena Six,” six black students in Louisiana who were charged with the attempted murder of a white student at Jena High in 2006-07.

The cast will be at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland during its Aug. 1-25 run. The largest arts festival in the world, according to its website, it features the famous and “unknown artists looking to build their careers” on stages all over the city.

However, after the festival in Scotland and the actors’ graduation, the fate of the play and its company is up in the air.

“We have plans, we have goals,” said Steven Broadnax, director of the third-year graduate play and head of Penn State’s graduate acting program. “Our dream would be for this to be mounted at a professional theater.”

He said he hopes the performance in Edinburgh will stir some buzz and help “Blood at the Root” reach that goal.

Penn State has been supportive of the company and its international performances, said cast member Tyler Reilly.

Dan Carter, head of Penn State’s School of Theatre, helped put the financial resources of the school behind the play to make the travel happen, Reilly said.

“Blood at the Root” follows six students at the fictitious Cedar High who are faced with a choice: Continue to perpetuate the status quo, or do the right thing and make a change for the better, said Allison Jaye, who plays student journalist Toria. Jaye said the actors were concerned that the play might not appeal to a South African audience because it deals with American racial tensions.

But she said the company found that the play translated perfectly — each different audience in South Africa thought the play had been written about their town.

“That’s when we really knew we were onto something special,” she said.

Kenzie Ross, another actress, said that when the company traveled to South Africa, the cast had only performed the play in front of small group of friends and had no idea what to expect.

But the response from all audience members — whether white, black, old or young — was “life-changing,” she said.

Coordinating and performing the show has been a lot of work, Reilly said, but the reaction from audiences continued to remind them why they do what they do.

The show is also unique because it features dance, which was added by Thompson, the only undergraduate performing with the company.

He was invited into the workshop process by Broadnax and Morisseau, who both wanted the dance element. After a few workshops and exploring the option of adding dance, Thompson said, he was added to the project.

“I’ve been over the moon just to be a part of this,” he said.