Sometimes a play so perfectly captures a moment, through all-in writing, acting, direction, set, costumes, sound and lighting, that all you can do is lean forward and gape. So it is with Dominque Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, now onstage from Open Fist Theatre Company in Atwater Village.
Based on the story of “the Jena Six,” Blood at the Root takes place at a Louisiana high school where the classes may be integrated but the overarching social structure is not. A giant tree on campus (spectacularly designed by Joel Daavid) is the unspoken hangout of the white students only. The Black students know not to take comfort in the shade of “Old Devoted,” yet on one hot October day Raylynn (an astounding Nychelle Hawk) defies tradition and takes a seat there.
Raylynn has decided to run for class president, a position no Black student has held at the school. (She suggests her slogan will be “I hate slogans.”) She has decided to live with passion and make her life count for something after her mother’s death three years earlier.
The repercussions of her first step, into the shade of Old Devoted, are ugly and immediate. They catch up her brother DeAndre (Nicholas Heard, a powerful presence), her friend Colin (Jeremy Reiter ll) and the staff of the school paper. Its Black editor, Justin (Azeem Vecchio), has already been holding back his White reporter Toria (a fierce Grace Soens) from covering anything controversial, like gays on the football team, birth control and acknowledgement that Black and White students mostly don’t hang out together.
Three nooses appear on Old Devoted after Raylynn invades its shady perimeter. Toria and Justin disagree about how the paper should cover the event. Raylynn and DeAndre find the school’s response to the nooses insufficient and disrespectful, but Raylynn’s White friend Asha (bundle of energy Caroline Rose) advises her against doing anything. The school turns on itself, its traditions exposed as systemic racism.
The play beautifully captures high school life, a time when students are on a quest to forge their future identities. Major life events force reconsideration of long-held beliefs and even friendships, a seeing of the world in all its shameful malice, with doors designed not to open. Like the students whose lives it presents, Blood at the Root comes of age, developing from a high school musical to a dark and challenging reality.
The production team lifts Morisseau’s knowing script to its highest level. Scenic design and technical director Joel Daavid creates a world both young and jaded, with strong and insightful support from lighting designer Gavan Wyrick, sound designer Marc Antonio Pritchett and costume designer Mylette Nora. Choreographer Yusuf Nasir finds exciting new ways to enhance the proceedings.
The chorus consists of Amber Tiara, Malik Bailey, Deandra Bernardo, Emma Bruno and Jack David Sharpe. All bring the heat.
Open Fist’s Blood at the Root runs through Oct. 28 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. in Los Angeles. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, three Sundays at 3:00pm (Sept. 17, Oct. 1 and Oct. 15) and three Sundays at 7:00pm (Sept. 24, Oct. 8 and Oct. 22). There is a Monday performance at 8:00pm on Oct. 9. Tickets are $20-30 and are available here.