Penn State Centre Stage's new theater work, "Blood at the Root" takes social issues that are part of the unspoken fabric of America and transforms them from conceptual to real, and from historical to personal.
Commissioned by Penn State from acclaimed playwright Dominque Morisseau, the project was written through intensive work with six Penn State theater students, a junior and five master's program actors who will graduate in May.
The first performances of the work last summer in South Africa received positive feedback. As the project developed, so also did funding that will allow the show to return to South Africa in June and then tour in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Morisseau's storyline uses an incendiary racial incident from 2006 in Jena, La., as the takeoff point to also address compelling and complex aspects of class and sexual orientation.
In Jena, six black teenagers were convicted in the beating of a white fellow student from their high school. Other details from Jena leading up to the violence are included - notably three nooses hung from a landmark tree at the school - but Morisseau also seizes the opportunity to comment on other fundamental aspects of unfair treatment and inequality that continue to resist correction.
The issue of fairness that was debated then becomes fodder for examining both social prejudice, as well as systemic injustice.
If you go
What: "Blood at the Root"
When:?2 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday.
Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, State College
Tickets: $18 for evening performances, $16 for the matinee; $12 for Penn State students with valid ID. They are available at the Penn State Downtown Ticket Center, Eisenhower Box Office, Bryce Jordan Center, or by calling 814-863-0255 or 1-800-ARTS-TIX.
Under the direction of Steve Broadnax, who also convinced Morisseau to bring the project to Penn State, the players not only inhabit their characters, they transpose them onto the observer by the sheer honesty and conviction of their performance.
Stori Ayers plays Raylynn, a quiet black student who begins to question the cliques in her school's culture and steps forward to run on real issues for class president. Her best friend, Asha, played by Kenzie Ross, is white but has grown up in and relates to her black family culture, yet these events throw into question her own cultural identity.
Raylynn befriends Colin (Tyler Reilly), who happens to be the quarterback of the football team, when she helps him open his school locker. Their friendship gets tested when her younger brother, De'Andre (Christian Thompson), is implicated in a gang beating of Colin, who had been covering up his own gay identity.
Can Colin find the courage to put aside his own experience of victimization and stand up for the future of De'Andre, a juvenile who is likely to be tried as an adult?
The unfolding of these explosive events also provides for a whirlwind of discussion between the editor of the school newspaper, Justin (Brandon Carter), a black student who's become adept at suppressing his own experience of injustice in favor of espousing safe news topics in the name of journalistic objectivity, and an enterprising writer, Toria (Allison Scarlet Jaye), who's determined to write to make a difference, not just fill column inches.
Morisseau's skillful writing creates visceral interactions that resonate, to ask: Are these issues still present today, are we effectively addressing them and whose job is that anyway?
Theatrical values are strong. Organic, fluid choreography by Aquila Kikora Franklin adds an electric quality that exudes a frustration at individual and systemic blindness as well as the redeeming potential of youth.
Central Pennsylvania is lucky to have this caliber of theater.
The language is not for the timid, but it is central to realistically conveying the time, place and culture.