Racially motivated criminal injustice-one of the most pressing issues of our time-is the topic of powerful drama by School of Music, Theatre & Dance alumna Dominique Morisseau, to be presented by the Department of Theatre & Drama this month. Titled Blood at the Root, and based on a true incident that took place in Louisiana in 2006, the play will be performed November 16–19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre at the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus.
Blood at the Root was commissioned for the 2014 graduate acting class at Penn State University and was inspired by the events surrounding the “Jena Six,” six black teenagers convicted in the beating a white student in Jena, Louisiana. The incident took place during a period of high tension after three nooses had been hung from a tree on their high school’s property. While the case was pending, it was often cited as an example of racial injustice in the United States due to a belief that the defendants had initially been charged with too-serious offenses and had been treated unfairly. Civil rights protests were held across the country during the trial, with between 15,000 and 20,000 protesters marching on Jena, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in recent years.
Blood at the Root explores the experiences of a group of high school students desperately trying to define themselves and navigate around those who identify themselves differently. Within the journey of these students, Morisseau also addresses propaganda, individual freedoms, and racial inequality in the judiciary system.
In addressing trenchant issues of race and social justice, Blood at the Root offers a unique opportunity to open much-needed dialogue on these topics. The Department of Theatre & Drama is seeking to engage the student body at U-M, as well as high school students and community members, to encourage open discourse. Each performance will be followed by a moderated discussion featuring members of the cast, artistic staff, and special guests, including one of the Jena 6, Bryant Purvis, who is now an activist, author, and professional basketball player. The “talk backs” provide an opportunity for audience members to join with the artists and experts in processing the issues raised in the play. They are free and open to all.
Through a partnership with U-M’s Youth Civil Rights Academy, administered by the School of Social Work, area high school students have been invited to attend Blood at the Root and a detailed Curriculum Guide has been made available to their teachers. In addition, the play will be presented at Renaissance High School in Detroit on November 16, also followed by a moderated discussion.
To further engage the community, a panel discussion will take place on Friday, November 17, from 12:30-2 PM at Stamps Auditorium in the Walgreen Drama Center, which is free and open to the public. Moderated by SMTD’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Freyja Harris, the panel is titled “Minorities, Social Justice and Police Enforcement: An Open Discussion.” The panelists will include Bryant Purvis, Professor Jose Casas (playwriting), Professor Eve Brensike Primus, U-M Law School, a member of the U-M police force, and Anushka Sarkar, U-M Student Body President.
The play is directed by Stori Ayers, an actress and director who has a long history with the work, having been a graduate acting student at Penn State when the play was commissioned. She toured as an actor with the show in the U.S. and internationally; this is her first time directing the play.
“Blood at the Root is a devised piece of theatre that looks at social prejudice and systemic injustice,” said Ayers. “What makes this piece fly is ‘hip-hop theatre’: the music, sound, and lights are huge elements in setting the world and making it a fast-moving play with a beat. There are also a lot of big statements within the design elements, such as the illusion of the flag as our backdrop. The play hinges on terms of what we say we believe and stand for in America, which is not necessarily reflected in how we carry out rulings in our justice system.”
Award-winning Department of Theatre & Drama alumna Dominique Morisseau, a Detroit native, is a dynamic, fast-rising playwright whose latest play, Pipeline, debuted at the Lincoln Center Theater this summer. She has written a three-play cycle, The Detroit Project, which explores key moments in the history of the Motor City. The cycle includes Detroit ’67 (winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama), Paradise Blue, and Skeleton Crew. She is a Jane Chambers Playwriting Award honoree, a two-time NAACP Image Award recipient, a commendation honoree for the Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association, winner of the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, the Weissberger Award for Playwriting, the U-M – Detroit Center Emerging Leader Award, a Lark/PoNY (Playwrights of New York) Fellow, and a Obie Award.
Joining Ayers on the creative team is scenic & lighting designer Justin N. Lang (L’Heure Espagnole/Gianni Schicchi). The costume design is by guest designer Emilio Sosa. Sound designer Socrates Papageorgiou is a senior at U-M pursuing a dual degree in computer engineering and sound engineering. Christopher Campbell, a senior musical theatre major serves as choreographer.
Performances of Blood at the Root take place November 16 at 7:30 PM, November 17 and 18 at 8 PM, and November 19 at 2:00 PM. Ticket prices are $30 general admission and $12 for students with ID. Tickets are available in person at the League Ticket Office, located within the Michigan League. The Ticket Office is open from 9 AM – 5 PM, Monday through Friday and 10 AM – 1 PM on Saturday. Order by phone at (734) 764-2538. All major credit cards are accepted. Tickets may also be ordered online at tickets.music.umich.edu. The Arthur Miller Theater, located within the Walgreen Drama Center at 1226 Murfin Avenue, is wheelchair accessible and equipped with an infrared listening system for hearing enhancement.