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BLOOD AT THE ROOT at Paul Robeson: Dominique Morisseau continues to probe racial injustice

THE BASICS: BLOOD AT THE ROOT, a play by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Aaron Moss, runs through October 29, Friday & Saturday at 8, Sunday at 4 in the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14209 (884-2013) Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  This play, based on the 2006 news story of the “Jena Six,” concerns black students at Louisiana’s Jena High School who were initially charged with the serious felony of attempted murder following a school fight. Provoked by the sight of nooses hanging from a tree on campus, the black students “jumped” a white football player which landed him in the hospital. This new play by Dominique Morisseau (whose DETROIT ’67 was recently seen at both The Paul Robeson and Chautauqua theaters) examines how racial and economic double standards systematically feed injustice and how that ultimately affects all human relationships.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Billie Holiday’s famous 1939 song “Strange Fruit” begins: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Having recently appeared in Ujima Company’s FREE FRED BROWN (see below) Andy Noel (playing the role of De’Andre) and Azarias Soto (playing Justin) joined four other young actors, mostly Buffalo State College theater majors, as they took BLOOD AT THE ROOT from first performances at the college over to Buffalo’s African American Cultural Center.

Lest you think that this is just a “student performance,” remember that the play was originally conceived with, and scenes were developed by, Penn State college students. So, yes, in a way this is a “student play” but it’s supposed to have that raw energy of youth. And the maturity, talent, and training of the six Buff State players on stage make this a very fine production.

BLOOD AT THE ROOT is an ensemble piece, but one through line starts with Raylynn (Kayla Bennett) the first black student to run for high school class president. Her best friend Asha (Kelsey Jeffs), who is white, has come up with a campaign slogan: “It’s about time.” And, Raylynn thinks it’s about time that a popular, shaded hangout spot under a tree on campus be integrated. So, one hot day she sits there. The next day, nooses are seen hanging from the tree. In retaliation, a group of six black students “jump” a white football player named Colin (Mark Bogumil). Among those charged is Raylynn’s brother, De’Andre.

Meanwhile, there is a timely second story line where Justin, the school newspaper editor and a stickler for proper procedure, argues with one of his reporters, Toria (Eliza Zanolli-Stiles), about what is factual reporting and what is editorializing. Should reporting be color blind? Can a reporter include motivations, intentions, and centuries of systematic injustice in the story? What is conjecture and what are the facts? They don’t use the term in the play, but the question in 2017 could be “what is ‘fake news’ and what is ‘truth’?”

…one chilling moment where several students stand on the tree trunk and wrap themselves in a white sheet on which an old photograph of hanged bodies is projected.

The acting and direction are solid, especially Kayla Bennett who completely inhabits Raylynn, but special mentions of the “behind the scenes” crew are well deserved, too. Moving six bodies quickly on a smaller stage, Naila Ansari-Woods’ choreography was smooth and effective. And the projections (Carol Beckley, Scenic Designer and Malik Griffin, Light Designer) were effective, with one chilling moment where several students stand on the tree trunk and wrap themselves in a white sheet on which an old photograph of hanged bodies is projected.

Other crewmembers include Maria Ngo Ta, Stage Manager; Ron Schwartz, Technical Director, Nicholas Quinn, Sound Designer; Tierra D. Townsend, Sound Operator; Debbi Davis, Properties Mistress; and Ann Emo, Cristalis Bonilla and DeMario Burks, Costume Designers.

At the Paul Robeson Theatre, after every show, the entire cast receives the audience in the lobby. It’s a heart-warming tradition which this group maintained. Selfies are encouraged.

What’s next? November 9, 2017 will mark a historic day in Buffalo as the Just Buffalo Literary Center ( presents Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison at Kleinhans Music Hall – exactly 50 years to the day from when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on the very same stage. In anticipation of this historic event, Just Buffalo has organized THE CIVIL WRITES PROJECT, inviting widespread collaboration to increase dialogue around issue of racial and economic injustice through the literary arts.

And that includes an encore performance of the previously mentioned FREE FRED BROWN, a “devised theatre piece about a young black man who becomes the reluctant face of a movement at the epicenter of economic, racial, and climate justice….a peek into the lives of the individuals who make a community what it is…” That’s one night only, Wednesday, November 1, at 7:00 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Avenue. FREE FRED BROWN is free and open to the public with pay as you can donations accepted, but reservations are strongly encouraged. Call 716-281-0092.

Photo credit is Peter Hall | Pictured L-R Ta, Noel, Soto, Zanolli-Stiles, Bogumil, Kneeling: Bennett, Jeffs

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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