DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
With months of preparation, weeks of rehearsal and almost two years of anticipation of getting on stage, the time has come.
Chautauqua Theater Company’s first production of the season, Blood at the Root, has its debut at 4 p.m. June 29 at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt. The show was written by Dominique Morisseau and will be directed by Associate Artistic Director Stori Ayers, who also originated the role of Raylynn in the original run of the show in 2014.
The play was written for the 2014 acting class at Pennsylvania State University to huge success, which led to tours in South Africa and Australia.
The show is based on the true story of the “Jena Six,” six Black teenagers convicted in the beating of a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, on Dec. 4, 2006.
However, the play is set in the present day. While it is about the events in 2006, the show’s script allows the director to have it be set in the present day, as well.
“This play is built on the idea of devised production. What this means is that the work on the page is really only half, and the ensemble is intended, along with the director, to put their own signature on the work in a more defined and pronounced way,” Morisseau noted in the script.
Ayers said oftentimes when looking at scripts there will be heavy stage directions. She said this play is not like that.
“So every production of it you see can look and be drastically different to how people build out the world,” she said.
The show follows six characters’ journeys, and is less about the events themselves than about the effects they have on the students and how they deal with the racial and social hierarchy of their school.
This is Ayers’ second time directing Blood at the Root and every time she has participated in a production, the show has always been slightly different.
“The first time I directed, I think I did a lot of mimicking what we did in our (original) production,” Ayers said. “This time I approached it with my own idea of who these characters are, what the story is and allowing these artists to bring their interpretations to the room. What I once thought what we originally did with this moment, is now completely different. Because these artists are different. And the time, the moment now, is different.”
Sarah Clare Corporandy, managing director of CTC, said Morisseau’s writing perfectly encapsulates six different perspectives on one singular event.
Ayers believes the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States can be traced back to the Jena Six case and its handling in both the courts and the media.
“I think (this show) is worth two things: going back and looking at the genesis of this movement, by telling their stories, (and) then there’s also something to getting the truth from the people involved,” Ayers said. “Getting that narrative, adding that to the mix. Because when you Google it, you don’t get their narrative. People understand it as six young Black boys jumped a white boy at school. And that was wrong.”
Corporandy believes this show is the best way to start the 2021 season in engaging with Chautauqua’s principles.
“This play is very much a call to action,” Corporandy said. “This play is not, ‘Just go home and talk about it on your porch,’ even though that’s a really important part of Chautauqua. This play is asking us to go beyond talk. This is the first time we’re speaking on a racial reckoning in our country after George Floyd was murdered, and the whole country stopped and is dealing with it. And our industry is dealing with it in a very direct way. This play is another way for us to help our community deal with it in an honest and vulnerable way.”