Directed by Stephanie “Asabi” Howard, performed by NC Central University, Mountcastle Forum, Milton Rhodes Arts Center
Tickets and showtimes can be found here.
The Jena 6 case preceded the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, which helped touch off the Movement for Black Lives, by at least five years. Jena 6, which also inspired a national mobilization for racial justice, was in some respects the flipside of the same racial superstructure. While the killers of Martin and Brown — a neighborhood watch leader and a cop respectively — went free, the six black teenagers at the center of the Jena 6 in rural Louisiana were charged with attempted murder for their involvement in a schoolyard fight.
Blood at the Root, the acclaimed play written by Dominique Morriseau, is a choreo-poem loosely based on the events that transpired at Jena High School in late 2006 and early 2007. The appearance of nooses in an oak tree next to the school underscored a history of racial segregation that contextualized the brutal intertwining of race and punishment in the prosecution of the six black students. But Morriseau’s play places all of her characters on uncertain footing rather than reducing the story to a set of activist slogans.
Stephanie “Asabi” Howard, who directs the student cast of Blood at the Root at this year’s festival, traveled to Jena as a chaperone shortly after joining the faculty at NC Central University in Durham, where she now chairs the theater and dance department. Howard said the student actors, who are about 10 years younger than the Jena 6, were not necessarily familiar with the events that inspired the play.
“I don’t think they relate to Jena; we’ve watched videos together,” Howard said. “It’s a very small town and seems quite segregated, other than when people come together for football games.”
Erik Dilauro, the only white cast member, who portrays Colin — the victim of the beating — comes from Weldon, in Halifax County.
“He said in Weldon it’s kind of like that — quite segregated, small, not a lot of mixing,” Howard said.
Howard said she admires the way Morriseau’s plot avoids finger-pointing.
The friendship between Colin and Raylynn (played by Shani Roy), who is the sister of one of the African-American football players who attacks him, is an example of the complexity Morriseau brings to the story.
“She goes to him and says, ‘Can you drop the charges against my brother?’” Howard recounts. “‘We get in fights all the time and then we go on about our business.’ The results of this fight are different; they’re serious and life-changing. There’s a great back and forth with different perspectives and feelings.”