“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”
—“Strange Fruit,” sung by Billie Holiday, recorded in 1939
What if I said that the good ole South still exists in 2023? But wait! What if the good ole South takes place inside a modern-day high school? That’s an even scarier thought, how kids pick up where the ghosts from the past finish where they left off. Black and white students hating on each other because one has more melanin than the other. It’s also a long-time, dirty history that never left. The new generation rides on the coattails of the evil and torture left behind and kept like a huge open secret.
There is an old oak tree, nicknamed “Old Devoted,” firmly rooted into the dirt. Its long branches covered with hanging, decaying vines. It is symbolic of the treacherous brutal memories of slavery seeing bodies around as if the slaves were expendable trash yet but refusing to budge. It is a hot October day in Louisiana. A group of students from Cedar High School cleverly express their displeasure of the wretched heat and endless humidity. Simple remarks and raps express the weather saying that “it’s hot, hot hot,” and “today is hotter than the devil’s ass!” Siblings Raylynn (played by the feisty Nychelle Hawk) and De’Andre (Nicholas Heard is amazing) hang out with friends Toria (Grace Soens the up-and-coming investigative journalist is combative with her editor-in-chief but has a good heart), Asha (Caroline Rose exudes vanilla girl swag) and transplant Colin (Jeremy Reiter II is wonderful as the new kid). The siblings had a rough few years since their parents passed away.
De’Andre keeps busy by playing football, a quarterback must shine, and Raylynn is considering running for student body president. Her vanilla sista from another mista Asha is determined to see this through, despite Raylynn’s reluctance. Raylynn is encouraged by her enthusiastic friend, who takes charge of the campaign. She tells Raylynn she needs a slogan, but the feisty student rolls her eyes at that. Asha does not take her friend’s nonchalant attitude and already prepares posters. And then, it got hotter. The devil could not stand it anymore and bounced quickly.
Clearly Ol’ Devoted should be available to everyone, however, the white students put a claim on it. Now, the black students are more irritated. How can this happen in 2023? Better yet why is it happening at all? There’s no good reason why everyone can’t share the same damn tree! That isn’t so. Raylynn walks like an updated version of Harriet Tubman, over to Ol’ Devoted and sat down. Shh! You heard that? That’s the sound of the other shoe that dropped. Soon, other black kids come to join her and sit comfortably. The story becomes juicier when it’s discovered that three nooses swing from those corroded vines. Soon, everyone at school and the community became alarmed. A lot of theories are shared. The principal nervously calls it a prank, and soon, others half-heartedly agree, while others wrinkle their noses at the ludicrous suggestin.
Meanwhile, Justin (Azeem Vecchio) the editor-in-chief is having his own issues. The main one is Toria and her weak ideas for the newspaper. She has a Woodward and Bernstein ideation in a little Southern town. That girl has tenacity. One idea he flatly turned down is about birth control. Justin is trying not to cause any strife as he is soon to graduate. This is the kind of story that must be told strictly-by-the-book, meaning “Don’t get carried away with your feelings. Just state the facts.” he sternly tells her. He already got chewed out by principal Miller about the tone and the direction on where the paper is heading. He has threatened to shut the paper down. The writer and editor continue to bump heads. What Toria calls nooses Justin reduces it to “rope hangin’ from a tree.” Rodeo rope to be exact. Toria reminds him the school does not have a rodeo. He does not appreciate how she constantly disobeys his orders and clearly reminds her who is the boss. He also reminds her the 3,000-word story must fit into his new layout. Then, the inevitable happens.
Six black students, including De’Andre, attack a white student. Depending on who you ask it was between six, or 20 or 100 black students who jumped the white boy. De’Andre took a swing at a black student. Or was it the white boy who struck first? Everybody saw something but, not sure what. Someone used a racial slur. Someone called someone a fag. Someone said something foul about someone’s momma. Which is the ultimate disrespect and permission to kick some ass. Detective Columbo could not figure this one out. Everyone saw something and nothing simultaneously. The new generation is just as angry and hurtful as the previous one.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew, 2016), (Pipeline 2017) is a superior storyteller.
The play is loosely based on the Jena 6 case, in Jena, Louisiana in 2006 where six black teenagers were charged for brutally assaulting white student Justin Barker. She pulls many elements from the harrowing story, mixed with her literary prowess and a story is born. Choreographer Yusuf Nasir does a hell of an excellent job in creating routines for both the coordinated step dancers and the cast protesting. Like soldiers doing their mandatory marching in unison. Not a person or beat or place. Just as we believe that progress is moving along, it’s takes one thing to remain trapped. When history threatens to repeat itself, steps must be taken and acted upon quickly to prevent that tragedy from coming into fruition.
Blood at the Root, an Open Fist Theatre Company production, plays at the Atwater Village Theatre, Saturday the 14th, 21st and 28th, at 8 p.m., Sunday the 22nd at 3 p.m., Sunday the 22nd at 7 p.m. located at 3269 Casitas Ave., in Los Angeles, free parking at the ATX (Atwater Crossing) lot one block south of the theater. Tickets are $20 – $30. Logon to www.openfist.org for reservations. Masks are recommended but not mandatory. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.