By Mary Boyle
There is a song, performed most notably by the great Billie Holiday, called "Strange Fruit," written in 1937 by New York teacher and racial justice advocate Abel Meeropol. The song was written as a protest to American racism, with a particular focus on the lynching of African Americans in the south. Holiday would close her shows with it; the room in darkness except for a spotlight on her, singing it like a prayer.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
The song is where Dominique Morisseau found the title for her play, before she even wrote the play, itself. The story of the Jena Six inspired the rest. The result is Blood at the Root, on stage at Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee.
The Jena Six are the six African American high school boys from Jena, Louisiana who were charged, initially, with the attempted second degree murder of a white student in 2006. The event sparked one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in US History, with protesters claiming that the six were being treated unfairly, based on their race, and that the charges were far too serious. Further investigation revealed a series of altercations in the school between black and white students, including the hanging of nooses on a tree in the school's courtyard, that suggested that the fight was the result of ongoing, unresolved racial tension.
Directed by Marti Gobel, Blood at the Root has a cast of six, interestingly, but not the six. Chantae Miller, who was recently seen in Fun Home at Forward Theater, delivers a powerful performance Raylynn, an African American high schooler in Jena who finds herself at a crossroad on the anniversary of her mother's death. Feeling a sudden need for change, Raylynn sits under "old devoted," the big tree where the white students have always congregated at school. Her simple act of defiance sets off a series of events that shakes her whole community to its core. First Stage Fellows, Justin Lee and Ibraheem Farmer are excellent as De'Andre and Justin, respectively. Casey Hoekstra makes an impressive Next Act debut as Colin, following three seasons with APT, and Milwaukee actor, April Paul, also makes a great debut as Asha. Finally, Milwaukee actor and educator, Grace DeWolff, who has normally been seen working with Next Act's Next Actors: Summer Theatre for Teens, now takes her turn on the Next Act stage as Toria.
Originally written for Penn State graduate acting students, Blood at the Root is intended for high school audiences, but is perfectly suited for Next Act Theatre's mission to "produce dramatic material that brings social, cultural and political issues to the center of the community debate, reflecting the universal needs and aspirations of our fellow human beings." Like the song that inspired it, Blood at the Root is rhythmic, musical, and poetic. This play examines the complexities and the long history of the racial divide that still exists in our country. While it provides no real answers, it forces us to consider the questions from a much broader perspective, which is certainly an exercise we all need to commit to.
Blood at the Root runs through February 24th at Next Act Theatre, located at 255 S. Water Street in Milwaukee. Tickets may be purchased by calling (414) 278-0765 or online at https://nextact.org/.
About Next Act Theatre
Next Act Theatre engages the hearts and minds of audiences with intimate, compelling productions intended to stimulate thought, foster the exchange of ideas, and promote the development of new perspectives and understanding. Led by Producing Artistic Director, David Cecsarini, Next Act continues its tradition of creating high-quality, professional theatre in Milwaukee. The past 28 seasons have earned the company its strong reputation for producing engaging work that feels intimate, powerful and personal. The plays presented are passionate, often bold, sometimes humorous, and always up-close-and-personal presentations of life. A strong, vibrant and financially stable company, Next Act produces a four-show season of contemporary drama. The company is particularly noted for its acting excellence, accessible performance style, and for a varied and consistently interesting selection of plays, chosen from the best new works and off-Broadway hits. Next Act has mounted more than 100 main stage productions, including over 100 area premieres and six original scripts.