Theatre of Change

"Blood at the Root," a newly commissioned play by award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau, is embarking on an international tour this summer.

When the members of the Penn State School of Theatre’s M.F.A. Acting class of 2014 finish their degrees, they will have a lot more than the Penn State mainstage on their résumés. They will have the experience of performing, marketing and touring — throughout Pennsylvania and internationally — a newly commissioned play that examines issues of race, class, sexuality and discrimination in a way that only live theatre can.

The School of Theatre commissioned up-and-coming playwright Dominique Morisseau, who recently won the prestigious Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, to write a play for the class of 2014. Commissioning a playwright to create a new work for the graduating class is nothing new — the School of Theatre has been doing it since 2010. But what happened over the past year has taken the students — literally and figuratively — farther than they ever imagined.

Christian Thompson, an actor, rehearsing the play Blood at the Root.

Christian Thompson in rehearsals

Christian Thompson rehearsed a scene from the Penn State Centre Stage production of 'Blood at the Root' with fellow cast members at the Penn State Downtown Theatre. The company has been performing the show, inspired by the Jena Six, at campuses throughout the Penn State system and will soon launch an international tour. 

Image: Patrick Mansell

“Together we developed a performance piece that celebrates looking beyond our differences in order to move forward.”—director Steve Broadnax, associate director of theatre and head of the graduate acting program

Modern-day inspiration

The play, “Blood at the Root” was inspired by the story of the “Jena Six,” six black teenagers in Jena, La., who were charged with attempted murder for a schoolyard fight after nooses were hung from a tree at their high school. Because previous assaults on black students had generated far lesser penalties, the conviction of the Jena Six sparked protests and civil rights demonstrations across the country.

The play “represents the culmination of a deeply personal and highly collaborative process,” says director Steve Broadnax, associate professor of theatre and head of the graduate acting program. “Together we developed a performance piece that celebrates looking beyond our differences in order to move forward.”

During the course of developing and performing the play, it became clear the cast had an overarching goal—to get people talking.

The story of the Jena Six may be one for the history books, but it’s a 21st-century tale that played out in 2006-07. “Many people don’t realize events like this are still happening,” says Tyler Reilly, cast member and managing director for the tour. “This play points to conversations that are begging to be had.”

The cast of six — five graduate students and one undergraduate — started those conversations in summer 2013, when they performed the play on a four-city tour of South Africa, culminating at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. “We knew the play worked in the rehearsal room, but because it’s an American story, we were not sure how it would play out in South Africa,” says Reilly. “What we learned was that the play’s specificity of time, place and culture is actually what allows people to see themselves, their culture and their issues in the piece.”

The cast rehearsal for the Penn State Centre Stage production of 'Blood at the Root' at the Penn State Downtown Theatre.

Cast members rehearse

Rehearsal for the Penn State Centre Stage production of 'Blood at the Root' at the Penn State Downtown Theatre. 'Blood at the Root,' commissioned by the Penn State School of Theatre, will begin an international tour this summer.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Each performance ends with a “talkback,” during which the cast and audience exchange questions and answers about the play.

The talkback session

The cast members’ experience in South Africa made them realize they needed to share the play with an even wider audience. When they returned to the United States, they formed their own tour company, designating specific responsibilities — such as managing director and marketing coordinator — to each cast member. They also began working with Penn State’s Office of Student Affairs to schedule performances at the Commonwealth campuses, which began in January 2014.

Each presentation of “Blood at the Root” — starting with the South Africa performances last summer — includes a “talkback” at the play’s end, facilitated by Broadnax, a cast member or other associated Penn State faculty. During a talkback session, the facilitator, cast and audience exchange questions and answers about the play’s artistic, technical and social aspects.

“It became clear in South Africa that we were starting very important conversations,” says Allison Jaye, marketing coordinator for the tour. “We feel we have a responsibility to provide a space where people can have these discussions. And we take responsibility for what we’re putting out there.”

What they’re putting out there is not necessarily easy to discuss, but the talkback sessions have shown that the play resonates with a wide audience. In South Africa, Reilly says, “in every city, we were told why the play was relevant to them and why it was important that we were performing it in their city.”

Jaye agrees, noting the play “has really become a conversation with the audiences we’re taking it to.” The response has been humbling, she adds. “It has been bigger and brighter and more enthusiastic than we ever dreamed. It has really become something bigger than us — it has become a ‘service.’ ”

“The play has been bigger and brighter and more enthusiastic than we ever dreamed."—Allison Jaye, marketing coordinator

Taking it abroad

Providing that “service” has also provided the student actors with an experience they never anticipated. Before they performed in South Africa last summer, they never considered a tour, let alone an international one. But this summer, the company will not only return to South Africa in June, but also perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. When Dan Carter, director of the School of Theatre, brought up the possibility of a tour, Reilly says, “we knew it was way too good an opportunity to pass up. But we also realized that if we wanted it to happen, we needed to take the reins and make it happen.”

Each cast member has a role beyond performing — in addition to managing director and marketing coordinator, there are coordinators for education programs, development, events and production. The students have organized several fundraising performances, including the U.S. premiere of the play at State College Area High School.

For Jaye, the experience has taught her anything is possible — if you’re dedicated. “You have to keep up, and you have to get out of your own way. You have to be willing to go at the speed that things are going to take off,” she says. “If one person is dedicated — if I believe in it with all my heart, and dedicate my time, energy and focus to it — then everyone else around me will begin to believe and be dedicated, too. That has been an invaluable lesson.”

Blood at the root cast

Cast photo

"Blood at the Root," commissioned by Penn State's School of Theatre, has performed at campuses throughout the Penn State system. The ensemble will take the show on an international tour beginning in June. For tickets, call 1-800-ARTS-TIX. 

Image: Patrick Mansell

This summer, the company will not only return to South Africa in June, but also perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.

While “Blood at the Root” is based on a story of racial injustice, the cast says the play is about much more than race. “This is not a Louisiana story; this is OUR story,” says Jaye. “This is happening here in State College, in Pittsburgh, in southern California, in Syracuse, N.Y. — all places I call home. And I want audiences to go beyond ‘race’ or deciding ‘this piece is about race.’ It’s not just about that — race is a heavy-weight vehicle for the themes that ‘Blood at the Root’ brings up, which I believe are challenge and change.”

During the course of developing and performing the play, it became clear the cast had an overarching goal — to get people talking. And if audience response is any indication, they have been successful.

“ ‘Blood at the Root’ doesn’t just stop here,” said an audience member at the Penn State Abington presentation. “It starts here. It plants the seed to have these conversations.”

The tour of “Blood at the Root” has been supported by the Penn State School of Theatre, College of Arts and Architecture, Graduate School, Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, Office of the Vice President for Research, Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses, Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, Student Affairs, Africana Research Center, Commission for Women, Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity and LGBTA Student Resource Center.