DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
In the true crime Renaissance, stories like the Central Park Five have regained mainstream attention. However, there are still stories of injustice that have fallen through the cracks, like the story of the Jena Six.
The Jena Six were six Black teenagers (Robert Bailey, then 16; Mychal Bell, then 16; Carwin Jones, then 17; Bryant Purvis, then 17; Jesse Ray Beard, then 14; and Theo Shaw, then 17) convicted in the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, on Dec. 4, 2006. The sentencing of the students was seen as racially motivated and discriminatory as the events of the assault are still not clear, and Jena’s white student population had been treated very leniently in similar incidents.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau wrote Blood at the Root for the 2014 graduating class at Pennsylvania State University, and uses the Jena Six as a means of which to examine America’s continuing problem in being able to handle differences in sexuality, race or gender.
Blood at the Root is continuing its run at 4 p.m. Friday, July 2 in the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
Stori Ayers, who is directing Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Blood at the Root, originated the lead role of Raylynn at Penn State and is coming back to Chautauqua for her fifth year to direct CTC’s production. She has been in contact with some members of the Jena Six throughout the years, including Purvis. He has joined casts of the show in doing community outreach, panels and has even written a book about his experience: My Story as a Jena 6.
“He’s been very much a supporter of the show,” Ayers said. “What’s been really special to me about having him a part of the show, when it’s being produced, is that he gets to tell his story. At the time, they were all advised not to talk to the media. When you research about the Jena Six, you don’t get their account personally. But when you read his book, you get his account. He gets to clear his name because he was never involved. He wasn’t a part of the fight. But he was friends with the gentleman who was in the fight. And they sort of all got clumped together in this sort of guilt-by-association ordeal.”
Once the decision was made by Chautauqua Institution to move all theater and opera productions outdoors, coupled with an overall reduced conservatory of six actors, CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba knew this show was perfect for the opening of CTC’s season.
“This show is immediate,” Borba said. “It is connected to the community and the audience. And they are, without a doubt, connecting to what is happening in our world today. Because I don’t think the world right now is looking for escapism, I think they’re looking for a moment of shared connectivity.”
For many people, this will be the first time hearing about the Jena Six, but Ayers wants people to remember that the story is much more about what happened that day in the schoolyard.
“It was about reducing those charges, because these 14- and 16-year-olds should not have been tried as adults for attempted murder for getting in a fight at school,” Ayers said.