“Blood at the Root”: Six Brilliant Teens Dance into Our Hearts—at Custom Made
Dominique Morisseau Rips the Polite Mask from Racism
by Barry David Horwitz
I loved “Blood at the Root.” The six young actors emerge as fully developed, believable teens. There’s enough talent in this show to make a smash Broadway musical. The actors explode from the stage and into our hearts.
Based on an actual outrage in Jena, Louisiana in 2007, this racist crisis could easily happen again, here and now.
Director and choreographer Darryl V. Jones sweeps us into Dominique Morisseau’s choreopoem with gritty street talk and original dance moves. We yearn to help these struggling kids. Adults have abandoned them just as their innocence is being ripped away.
Morisseau offers the whole history of the U.S. shaped into glittering conversations that shed light on crucial conflicts. She creates the fictional Southern town of Cedar, bursting with teenage self-doubt, social misfits, racial hatred, and Southern intolerance.
When one Black girl decides to sit under a tree where only white students hang out, the next day three white nooses appear on the tree. Each of the six young actors carves out a distinct and enlightening reaction. We learn from them, even when they’re on the wrong side of the question.
We are enchanted with Raylynn, played with charming innocence and insight by Elle Roe. Raylynn stands out for her fervor and truth-telling in a sea of teenage angst.
Talking with her best friend, sympathetic and struggling Asha, Raylynn speaks in a rhythmic prose that sometimes breaks into hip hop, poetry, or movement. Raylynn challenges her friend, in a dangerous game:
RAYLYNN. Ain’t never seen nobody like me sittin’ under that tree. Ain’t never been nobody like me run for class president. You ever look up one day and realize you been doin’ the same thing for so long, you ain’t even sure why? Like you just followin’ rules and ain’t never stop to question—why it’s a rule in the first place?
ASHA. I’dono. Maybe.
. . . . .
RAYLYNN. I’m gon’ get me some shade.
ASHA. What for? Don’t go over there. Ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of snobs and cliques sit under that tree. (Morisseau, 17)
Another rule breaker and risk taker, Toria (fervent Jillian Smith), an eager journalist, wants to pierce the veil of hypocrisy at Cedar High. She demands attention to serious issues, arguing with her editor Justin (droll Keli’i Salvador), a cautious straight arrow. Salvador plays Justin with eye rolling seriousness, as the beleaguered editor. In their exciting, fiery debate, Toria and Justin make us smile, as they passionately argue about investigative reporting versus complacent journalism.
TORIA: Or how about the number of boys on the football team who’d rather be dating each other than all the girls they swap semen with–
. . . . .
JUSTIN: You don’t have the stats to prove that.
TORIA: I could get them. (Morisseau, 20)
When the three iconic nooses appear on the oak tree the next day, the anxious football player Colin (thoughtful Ian Brady), on the down low, gets into a fight with his teammate DeAndre (irrepressible Leon Jones). The teammates get into a scuffle over racial name calling with DeAndre ending up in jail. Clearly, Southern white bigotry emerges, yet again. But some students rise up to “Free the Cedar 6!” and make their voices heard.
As choreographer, Darryl V. Jones designs unique movement, voguing, and dance to express the students’ loss of innocence. The poses, turns, and balletic moves thrillingly complement their speedy, intense debates and inspiring declarations.
These teens have been fooled once too often by racist propaganda. Director Jones shows how students have become the victims of an older generation stuck in time. Just as children are being murdered by out of date gun laws.
The school and police want to destroy DeAndre and prosecute him as an adult—so the case becomes a cause, and the students take sides on hard issues.
COLIN. Well why everybody else get to be called somethin’ FROM somewhere and all we get is a color?!
DEANDRE. Ain’t nobody made ya’all a color. Ya’ll made ya’llselves a color. And everybody else one too. Don’t be tryin’ to change the rules now.
COLIN. What rules? I ain’t make no rules.
DEANDRE. I’m just sayin’. Yo’ great-grandparents did. (Morisseau, 52)
So many truths from the mouths of kids, passionately expressed in stirring poetry, dance, and debate—“Blood at the Root” is a must see for today’s America, a masterwork, masterfully envisioned by Darryl V. Jones.
“Blood at the Root” by Dominique Morisseau, directed, choreographed, and arranged by Darryl V. Jones, by Custom Made Theatre, at Phoenix Theatre, San Francisco. Info: CustomMade.org – to June 5, 2022.
Cast: Ian Brady, Satania Gidney, Leon Jones, Elle Roe, Keli’i Salvador, and Jillian Smith.
Banner photo: Elle Roe (Raylynn) & Satania Gidney (Asha). Photo: Jay Yamada