This explosive, fast-moving, lyrical presentation of Dominique Morisseau’s book, based on a racially-charged incident at a high school in Louisiana in 2006, has been dubbed a “choreopoem,” and theatergoers will understand and feel that description from the first second of the action.
By Carol Edger Germain
Michael Shepperd’s direction, the talent of the cast (Nychelle Hawk, Nicholas Heard, Jeremy Reiter Il, Caroline Rose, Grace Soens, Azeem Vacchio, Mallik Balley, Deandra Bernardo, Emma Bruno, Jack Sharpe and Amber Tiara) and the background beat from spoken words and hip-hop rhythm accompaniment brought out the power of the subject.
The title alludes to the song “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holliday in 1939 (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”). The story is based on the “Jena 6,” six Black students in Jena, Louisiana, who were severely punished by calls for attempted murder charges after beating up a White student, shortly after White students hung nooses from the school’s giant oak tree, “Old Glory,” (which is the one stable fixture on the set, and it is spectacular – huge, beautiful, colorful, compels you to stare at it), where a Black student, Jaylynn, had the “nerve” to hang out, even though it was understood the area under the beautiful tree was only for White students, and that incident was dismissed as trivial and did not warrant punishment or even discussion. Raylynn even stepped up and announced that she was thinking of running for class president.
An interesting juxtaposition of characters is at the school newspaper. White girl reporter Toria (Grace Soens) wants to connect the dots, report the whole truth, and take a stand, but the mixed-race editor Justin (Azeem Vecchio) doesn’t want to make waves and prefers to do the usual reporting of mundane occurrences. Toria forges ahead, drawing a connection between Ray’s sitting under the tree, the nooses, and the protest as being the leadup to the fight and wants to document it; needless to say, her article is rejected. Although we all know racism and segregation is alive and well in the US on many levels, it’s still a gut punch to learn of such incidents (a 5 minute google reveals numerous occurrences) and confirms the nation is still slowly grinding its wheels when it comes to equality, racial justice, and respect. Quoting Director Shepperd, “This is a fantastic ensemble piece that uses rhythm, sound and poetry to explore friendship, racism and the miscarriage of justice.” The rhythm, poetry, choreography, and drama are tight and nonstop, an intense 80 minutes. The director has beautifully exercised his “poetic license” to adjust the story slightly to make it relevant to 2023, although, to be honest, my impression is that only the number of the year has changed.
Absolutely highly recommended, get there in time to gaze at the quiet beauty of the oak tree, let that sink in and calm you, because there will be nothing calm about the next 80 minutes; there will be only great acting, singing, partying, music, lyrical storytelling, intense emotion, and a story that will leave much to ponder, but also exudes hope. It would be wonderful to see the younger generations raise the torch and get permanently serious about “with liberty and justice for ALL.”
Creative team: scenic designer Joel Daavid (including that amazing tree); lighting designer Gavan Wyrick; sound designer Marc Antonio Pritchett; costume designer Mylette Nora; and chorographer Yusuf Nasir, promises a visually and emotionally immersive experience. The assistant director is Debba Rofheart, and the production stage manager is John Dimitri. Co-artistic directors Martha Demson, James Fowler and Amanda Weier produce for Open Fist Theatre Company.
Blood at the Root Through Oct. 28 Fridays at 8:00 pm: Oct. 6; Oct. 13; Oct. 20; Oct. 27 Saturdays at 8:00 pm.: Sept. 30; Oct. 14; Oct. 21; Oct. 28 (dark Oct. 7) Sundays at 3:00 pm: Oct. 1; Oct. 15 (no matinees on Oct. 8; Oct. 22) Sundays at 7:00 pm: Oct. 8; Oct. 22 (no evening performances on Oct. 1; Oct. 15) Monday at 8:00 pm: Oct. 9 only Open Fist Theatre Company @ Atwater Village Theatre 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039 Free parking, small ATX lot one block south, also another lot down the street south of Momed (do not park in Momed lot.) Also street parking Tickets - www.openfist.org or (323) 882-6912
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