From the very first moment the guests walked into the Experimental Theatre of San Diego State University, everyone knew that the following performance would be closely connected to music. While finding their seats, the audience was greeted with various hip hop and R&B songs to get them in the mood (which visibly worked well) for the play called Blood at the Root by the SDSU School of Theatre, Television & Film. Appropriately enough, the first sound of the play was that of the song “Lose my Breath” by Destiny’s Child, followed by the entry of six characters chanting synchronously and rhythmically about a hot day.
As the plot rolls on, intertwined with a lively mixture of poetic fragments and music between every scene, the audience learns more and more about the six students and the issues they are facing. There is more insight about Justin (Deion Selma), the black editor of the school paper, who feels left alone in his battle to constantly balance the line between “white” and “black” while being called an “Oreo” by black people for being black on the outside, but white on the inside. Asha (Jazmine Reynoso), a white girl who feels more drawn to black culture, has similar difficulties fitting in, while white quarterback Colin (Patrick Clark) struggles with his homosexuality. His teammate De’Andre (Carter Piggee), together with sister Raylynn (Dina Mitchell) who is running for class president, is grieving the loss of their mother while juggling everyday tasks. And then there’s Toria (Augusta Mariano), a student trying to publish articles about controversial issues such as birth control. She is held back by editor Justin as their beliefs collide, revealing more issues than just simple publishing questions.
Award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau sheds light on racial tension by looking at it from a range of different perspectives. The play takes inspiration from many sides and is based on a real-life incident from nearly 10 years ago: the case that evolved around six black students (“The Jena Six”) being convicted for attacking a white student. Another influence hides in the words of the title, taken from a poem that has been turned into the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (just another interesting instance of poetry and song coming together). The roots and the tree that were introduced in the title, and appeared on the event posters, remain prevalent throughout the whole play: even the setting with a tree made of ropes in the background functions as a representation of the racial tension, hovering in the background like the Sword of Damocles, and overseeing, if not overshadowing, the events the play revolves around.
What happens beneath the tree subsequently also becomes a crucial part of the story. When a few black students decide to sit under the tree where only white kids have ever been sitting, the plot accelerates and the racial tension escalates. Soon afterwards, three nooses are found hanging from the same tree. While the white students are blowing it off as a joke, the black students take it very seriously. Some days later, a white student – Colin – gets beaten up by black students, including De’Andre. This brings all of the characters together, and it is also when one of the most intense moments of the play happens: De’Andre finds himself in prison and very emotionally delivers a spoken word piece about the “rules” he feels chained by.
Judging not just by the diverse audience I came across in the theatre that night, the play has something to offer for almost every type of audience: whether it be SDSU students popping in on their way home, people who consciously experienced the events that form the base of the play, or any other person who sometimes wonders where he or she belongs. The performance directed by Randy Reinholz, SDSU Theatre Faculty’s very own professor, brings together diverse elements and leads us to think once more about racial inequality. Given the current events in the US, this is highly relevant for everyone. If there is one thing this play has taught us, it’s that we should try and see things from another person’s point of view, and not only from our own perspective.