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THEATER REVIEW Blood at the Root
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-07-15


Playwright: Dominique Morisseau

At: Jackalope Theatre Company and The Yard Ensemble at the Armory, 5917 N. Broadway. Tickets: $10-$25; JackalopeTheatre.org. Runs through: July 28

There are two things you should know before the start of the play: First, one day in 2006, on a high school campus in Jena, Louisiana, an African-American female student running for class president sat in the shade of an oak tree on campus—a venerated site habitually that "snobs and cliques" occupied. The next day, three hangman's nooses dangled from its branches and, later, a cafeteria brawl resulted in a white male student being severely beaten and six Black male students arrested.

Second, in 2014, rising-star playwright Dominique Morisseau met Penn State professor Steve Broadnax, who asked her to write a play for his graduate acting class. This proposal might have produced a paint-by-numbers docudrama listing its issues in tidy power-point; instead, it supplied Morisseau with material for a "choreopoem" ( a term earlier that Ntozake Shange coined ) that blended dialogue, spoken-word poetry, rap music, jazz dance and visual imagery to create an intimate collage focused squarely on the witnesses to the incident under scrutiny.

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This means we get no inflammatory TV newscasts, no patronizing op-eds, "objective" analyses or weepy epilogues to overextend the brief stage time ( 80 minutes ). Adult authorities appear in only one scene, and the sole journalists are those on the school newspaper. The teenagers of "Cedar High" whose futures depend upon their response to the crisis speak for themselves, articulating their convictions with undiluted candor and spontaneity.

Gradually, a summary emerges from the welter of dissenting reports, raising more questions than answers: Were the nooses a racist hate crime, or simply an adolescent joke? Was the fight precipitated by racism or homophobia? Were all of the participants to blame for its instigation? Does the prospective punishment exceed the crime?

By the play's conclusion, we still don't know. ( A Wikipedia search finds the real-life accounts just as unresolved. ) What you will find in this revival of Jackalope's collaboration with the Yard Ensemble are performance dynamics generating electricity so palpable you can almost see the sparks as the protesters' chants break over the fourth wall to envelope the audience—rendering the smack of clapping hands in the Armory's brick-and-concrete cell a volley resounding with the urgency of a thousand firecrackers exploding in righteous anger.

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