Six high school kids – black and white – in a tiny school in a tiny town down south and an innocent moment that spirals into a race war leaving victims strewn all over the place.
And all because of a tree.
But what a tree.
A magnificent tree. A huge and storied tree. A tree with a name. A tree with roots as thick as sewer pipes. A tree with limbs as thick as your leg.
It is this tree, named Old Devoted, that is at the heart of “Blood at the Root,” the powerful play by Dominique Morisseau getting an exhilarating run at Next Act Theatre.
If there was ever a time for this play, it is now and if there was ever a place for it, it is Milwaukee.This is a city with its collective head in the sand because of our inability to talk about racial inequity in any meaningful way.
In this production, daringly directed by Marti Gobel, we see – as we have through history – that it is often out of the mouth of babes that the greatest wisdom comes.
This play has its birth in a t12-year old true story that took place in Jena, Louisiana. Six black teenagers were convicted of beating a white student. That beating was the culmination of a series of events at the high school that began with the tree – a whites-only loitering spot at the school. Once a black student sat under the tree hangman’s nooses showed up on the limbs of the tree and the racial unrest started its rolling boil.
“Blood at the Root” is a story told in spoken word, dance, rap, song and visual power. And nothing is more powerful than the tree, born in the mind of Jason Fassl, the eminent lighting designer who also designed the set for this production.
Mr. Fassl, who has carried productions with high lighting genius, has created a play all by himself with his tree. To stand a look at it, watch how it settles and rises and reaches, is to know the story being told and to know it viscerally.
Ms. Gobel has given her six actors a detailed and intelligent pathway to tell this story and all six are wonderful individually and brilliant as an ensemble. Each student, three boys, three girls, three whites, three blacks, has a moment in the sun. It is moving to watch the way these six children ask the hard questions. And it’s equally moving to see them come up with easy answers in some cases and no answers at all in others. The are unencumbered by the weight of life, but you can see them standing on the precipice of pain where real life intrudes on the idyllic life of a child.
Perhaps none of the children grabs hold of the issues with more perception that Colin, a closeted gay white quarterback who has just transferred into the school. Played by Casey Hoekstra, Colin struggles with the events if the past couple of days. It’s a transfixing speech.
“It was like some shit out of a Civil Rights documentary. Like the kind they be showin’ in class. And most of the folks be fallin’ half asleep. Seen this one kid in third period start droolin’ on the desk when we was watchin’ this one – Eyes on the Prize it called. Real interest.in’ to me, but guessin’ not to most everbody else. I interested cuz it’s nice to know what done happened before I showed up somewhere. Nice to know how !hangs used to be and that thangs as they is now come from somethin’. It all got roots. Way somebody choose not to sit next to somebody in the lunchroom- got roots. Way_ somebody got problems with the flag somebody else wear on they t-shirt – got roots. Way some people talk the way they talk, or hang out with who they hang out with, or love who they love, or hate who they hate – all got roots. It feel halfway comfortin’ knowin’ it ain’t just start with us. That it been this way. That somebody’s been plantin’ these awful feelins in the soil somewhere. Long before we came along and started pulling up crops. We been digestin’ this same stuff, grown in this same soil, and ain’t even know it. So I like seein’ stuff like that.. .byes on the Prize… documentaries on the,Civil Rights Movement. When that happened today at school.. .when those students went and stood under that great oak tree… O1′ Devoted they call it. .. Look like some kinda protest. Look like somethin’ like from another time. From a Civil Rights Time. And it got me thinkin’ …what kinda crop is the folks after us gonna dig up? Is it still gonna be from this same ol’ soil? Or is we ever gonna plant somethin’ new…”
Ms. Gobel has a clear grasp of the power in this play and never lets it get preachy or pontifical. She knows that children can show the way to a tomorrow that might be a much better place for them to live than the one they are forced to live in now.
She is a brilliant director and this reminds me of her work on “The Brothers Size” that she directed a year ago for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Both shows are socially powerful and Ms. Gobel once again lets them soar into the highest branches of the magic tree.
MIke Fischer made his debut as a dramaturge in this production. For 15 years he was the theater critic for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was also a top flight Milwaukee attorney.
He has now moved into the world of theater as a part of it, not just an observer.
Mr. Fischer is a brilliant man and it will be a thrill to watch him move into this world. The theater world in Milwaukee will be richer with his contributions and I wish him well and thank him for all he does.
Cast: Raylynn, Chantae Miller; Toria, Grace DeWolff’ Asha, April Paul; Justin, Ibraheem Farmer; Colin, Casey Hoekstra; De’Andre, Justin Lee.
Production credits: Director, Marti Gobel; Costume Designer, Marti Gobel; Scenic and Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Properties Designer, Heidi Salter; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini ; Composer, Kemet Gobel; Choreographer, Alicia Rice; Dramaturg, Mike Fischer; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production photographer, Ross Zentner.