Three nooses were found hanging under a tree at a high school in Jena, La. in 2006. It started a domino effect of mass protests, clashes between students and authorities and the eventual arrest of six students whose trials garnered national attention.
“Blood at the Root,” written by Dominique Morisseau, tells the fictionalized version of these events. The University of Louisville’s theater department decided it was a story they wanted to open their mainstage season with. It premieres Sept. 23 and runs through Sept. 30 at Thrust Theatre.
“We look for plays that address our mission, and our mission is to do work that has a social justice impact,” U of L’s Department of Theater Arts Chair Nefertiti Burton said. “Work that is inclusive and has a diverse cast, and so ‘Blood at the Root’ really fit that bill.”
She said the play’s themes have local resonance while also offering societal context.
“For me, part of my passion to do this piece is because where we are as a country, and the dismissing or the suppression of history, the suppression of the ability to acknowledge what happened in the past so we can move forward in the future,” she said.
Burton, who directs the production, said the age range of the real-life students in the play made it the perfect fit for U of L’s graduate and undergraduate theater students to participate.
Beyond meeting the mission standard the program has set for itself, Burton said “Blood at the Root” reflects some of the events and tensions seen in Louisville over the past couple of years.
“We felt that this play and its topics and its themes were very relevant, still, I think what I think is so important about it and why I’m really drawn to it is because of the complexity; none of the issues are black and white,” Burton said.
For some of the actors, that complexity is demonstrated in the way their character grows throughout the story.
“It’s about being able to examine characters who move from one initial perspective and understanding each other a little bit more deeply in terms of race and culture,” Sarah Chen Elston, a third-year graduate student and actor in the play, said.
In order to convey this complexity of emotions and story, the choreography became important to the production.
“For this piece, as the choreographer, what was important to me was to express the various emotions, but it’s more like stylized movement,” second-year graduate student Nyazia Brittany Martin said.
Martin said attempting to balance emotions like anger and frustration with moments of joy, where the play’s students can come together and fight for what they believe is right, is an important part of the physical movement in the play.
With the thematic focus on racism and other forms of oppression, Burton instituted a policy for the cast and crew to check in and out during rehearsals.
“In the check-in, that’s where folks get a chance to acknowledge some of the difficult moments and sort of reconnect with each other as human beings outside of this story,” Burton said.
For some of the students, this is their first time having to work with a story that has this much cultural relevance and impact.
Before rehearsals began, Burton established an agreement. Everyone was expected to bring their best selves to the process while also being open to learning.
She hopes to extend that learning to the audience.
“We look for work that can hopefully can raise awareness and maybe even sometimes drop some clues on how to move forward,” Burton said.