Arts and Entertainment

New play takes root, expands to international tour

The commissioned play 'Blood at the Root' explores issues of race, class, sexuality and discrimination — and the all-student cast seized the opportunity to share important conversations with peers at campuses ... and others around the world.

"Blood at the Root," a newly commissioned play by award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau, will be performed by School of Theatre students at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center March 25-April 5 before embarking on an international tour this summer. The play 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 in 2006 after nooses were hung from a tree at their high school. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the members of the 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.

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.”

“Blood at the Root” hits the mainstage at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center March 25–April 5, fresh off the heels of winning the Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Theater Creator Award, which honors new theatrical works that engage hip hop “as an ever-evolving attitude of contemporary resistance and self-definition.” The cast will accept the award at the Kennedy Center on April 7.

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.”