Blood at the Root

Blood at the root adelaide fringe 2015Penn State Centre Stage. Holden Street Theatres. 11 Feb 2015


Provocative, contemporary American theatre. A showcase of bright, young American stage talent. Just because of these factors, ‘Blood at the Root’ is a pretty hot drawcard.


But this work, emerging from a distinguished US School of Theatre program which puts students to work among professionals, also is a daring piece of theatre which confronts the tinderbox of racial sensitivities on a Louisiana campus. 


The characters are a cross-section of campus stereotypes: the loud, friendly black girl activist with a hope for positive change; her white sidekick who walks between two cultures; the black footballer brother for whom brawls are not unusual; the rational black campus newspaper editor; the over-zealous student journalist; and the outsider, a white transfer footballer student.


Perhaps the moral of the story is that people should just be left alone to identify with their own kind, for the catalyst which tips university life upside down is simply the one black girl who, running for class president, decides to go and sit in the shade under a certain tree among the presumably white students who usually sit there. The next day, nooses hang from the tree. Then violence breaks out and a white student is hospitalised.


This play, written by Dominique Morisseau, is based on fact - an incident in which six students were jailed for attempted murder, so it is all the more chilling.


It makes one very aware of the levels of anger which underlie so much of American society, the desperate dangers of life on the edge of racial tension. To some extent, it explains why incidents such as Ferguson ignite as they do.


The production is embellished simply by a rough ink backdrop of the territorial tree and a few strong, high-backed wooden chairs.


The chairs create locker rooms, newspaper office or campus yard while the cast, looming large and in-your-face in the immediacy of The Studio, creates the powerful intensity of the piece.  There's hip hop and shouting, debate and some nice scenes of tentative friendship between the new white jock and the big-hearted black student politician. There also is a wonderful soundscape wherein beautiful American birdlife sings on in the background, oblivious to all the human bedlam.


The cast in its entirety is notable - Stori Ayers as the brave activist, Brandon Carter as the sensitive newspaper editor, Allison Scarlet Jaye as the stressed and strident student journalist on her quest for justice, Kenzie Ross as the white girl in the middle, Christian Thompson as the angry black footballer and, most especially, Tyler Reilly, as the reticent new white student who ends up at the core of it all.


The play is a little overwritten and didactic. But it is a brave and stirring work which puts one of the great sorrows and dilemmas of the USA right there on the table - two sides, two worlds, one problem. It brings home the repercussions of racial violence on family life, the emotional and psychological carnage of racial difference and, in its way, it calls on people to think twice, to seek social justice, to be better.


In its fleet 75 minutes, it very artfully explores deeply perplexing issues straight from its good American heart.


It brought its youthful full-house Adelaide audience straight to its feet in cacophonous acclaim.


Samela Harris


When: 12 Feb to 15 Mar
Where: Holden Street Theatres – The Studio