“This piece is not for the faint of heart,” wrote Music,Theatre & Dance and LSA senior Elyakeem Avraham in an email interview with The Daily.
Avraham will be playing De’Andre, one of the six teens depicted in the SMTD’s upcoming performance of “Blood at the Root.” The play centers around the Jena Six, a group of Black teenagers who, in December of 2006, were convicted of beating Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Louisiana.
Written by Dominique Morisseau for Penn State’s 2014 graduate acting class, “Blood at the Root” is fictitious, using the historical event as a launching point for the story to unfold. A member of the class, SMTD director Stori Ayers was a producer and an original cast member of Morisseau’s 2014 production.
“We were the winner of the Graham F. Smith Peace Foundation Prize for its (“Blood at the Root”) promotion of human rights,” Ayers wrote. “(We) have taken this play to many high schools and all the Penn State Branch campuses to do outreach and social justice workshops in hopes of starting a conversation and igniting within our generation a spirit of activism.”
The play aims to challenge both the audience and the history it’s developed from, and Ayers is imbuing SMTD’s performance with the same fire as the show’s origin.
“[The] story’s specificity creates a universality that charges the audience with the social responsibility of dealing with the ‘other’ in order to create change,” Ayers explained. “Everyone has an ‘other’; whether based in sexuality, race or gender, we all deal with people who are unlike ourselves. This play explores the experiences of a group of high school students desperately trying to define themselves and navigate around those who identify themselves differently.”
Working as Associate Choreographer in addition to his role as De’Andre, Avraham was drawn to the show for its content.
“When Jena Six happened in 2006, I was one of the leaders in a protest against the charges that the Jena Six faced,” he wrote. “For 12 days straight, about 300 students wore all black to school in solidarity with those facing charges in the Jena Six case. It escapes people that racial injustices, such as this one, happened only 11 years ago and continue to happen today.”
Compelling and expository, “BATR” isn’t meant to just entertain. It’s a story of self-agency and the resiliency of the human spirit, and it’s intended to affect — whatever form that may take.
Other cast members Charda Jameson (SMTD, sophomore), Kathleen Taylor (SMTD, junior), Sierra Stephens (SMTD, sophomore) and Eddie Williams (SMTD/LSA, senior) spoke with The Daily on what being in the play means for them:
“When I read this play for the first time last year, the thing that stuck to me the most was the fact that each and every character in the play struggles with a certain aspect of their own social identity and cultural context in a very humanizing way,” Stephens recalled. “As a white person in this piece, being here means putting my white privilege on the table for analysis. It means showing the white-identifying community what it means to recognize privilege and what it means to confront the systematic racism we perpetuate every day.”
“BATR” is self-aware, and it’s cast embodies this sentiment — knowing that the world isn’t OK, and people sometimes aren’t OK, but collectively we can be.
“(The play) portrays young people as fiercely intelligent, deeply feeling human beings. I think it’s rare to find a piece of media that takes teenagers so seriously,” Taylor wrote.
A thoughtful piece, “BATR” hopes to give a holistic view on modern-day racism.
“(The audience) should expect to see different perspectives and viewpoints, both from people involved in the issues that arise and the people that actively choose to stay out of them,” Williams mentioned.
Telling a story that needs to be heard, the show makes sure to involve moments of light to keep the performance charming.
“People should expect to be moved in ways that are uncomfortable, but to also go on a fun ride, with dance and comic relief mixed in our piece,” Jameson noted.
No matter the background you’re coming from, “Blood at the Root,” promises to be hopeful and provoking. The performance is scheduled for this Thursday evening in the Arthur Miller Theater.