Educational theater can be a difficult thing to stomach. It has a more specific objective and audience in mind than most other plays do. If it’s too instructional or explanatory, it condescends.
I sensed this feeling in the pit of my stomach as soon as the lights came up on “Blood at the Root,” the season opener at the Paul Robeson Theatre. The play is a co-production with SUNY Buffalo State, where it previously performed a two-week run. It continues at the Robeson through Oct. 29. It is unique for a local production to split its performances between those meant for students and those meant for the general public. (Theatre of Youth does this with every run, albeit for a consistently young audience base.)
If first impressions are anything to go by, I wondered if this particular play—about the real-life Jena Six, a group of six African-American high school students wrongfully charged with attempted murder for a school fight—should even be performed on a professional stage. The urgent importance of the story notwithstanding, this script felt too explanatory for an adult audience, too tutorial.
As lights come up, the cast of six bursts into a theater exercise that uses movement and poetry to set the scene: words are shouted, emotions are danced. "Saturday Night Live" does a dead-on parody of this sort of acting; it takes place during a drama club assembly, and is patently ridiculous. This exaggerated style belittles the intelligence of its actors and audiences by simplifying emotions and flattening characters to two-dimensional cutouts.
But it does get your attention. And if there’s one goal of Dominique Morisseau’s important play about America’s long-gestating racial crisis, it’s to get our attention.
This opening scene is thankfully the only time we’re subject to this performance style. The play jumps quickly into a series of vignettes that move economically through a short, hurried time frame. Director Aaron Moss’s poetic hand remains present, however, with stagecraft, movement and projections that beautifully illuminate their scenes’ underlying emotions. One involving a white sheet, wrapped around an assemblage of students, is stunning.
The cast works together noticeably well, working in tandem with considerable energy and strength. This makes up for an occasional lack of focus or artistic maturity among some in the group. To be fair, some of Morisseau’s dialogue reads too simplistically to do its actors any favors. But in general, everyone is effective and pares well with their material.
Of particular note is Kayla Bennett as the engaged student leader Raylynn. While there are no real leads here, Raylynn and Bennett unlock our most woke desires with conviction, earnestness and heart. Bennett is incredible to watch. Her frustration is deeply shared; she is the most effective at emoting, and not merely instructing.
Andy Noel is her match as football player D’Andre, who generously conveys the transformation from misunderstood young adult to scapegoated student to discriminated person-of-color, often just in his face. Noel gives a quiet but fierce performance, and does what the script often cannot.
Mark Bogumil and Kelsey Jeffs are effective enough, though less refined alongside their cast mates, in their roles as Colin the transfer student and Asha, the white girl with African-American affectations.
Eliza Zanolli-Stiles and Azarius Soto play dueling student journalists Toria and Justin, respectively. Their combative debates on what’s newsworthy and what’s frivolous shed particularly bright light on the play’s biggest takeaway: How much discrimination—not just racial, but gender and sexual—is too much? How much do we have to experience and witness before we do something about it? And more pointedly, to what extent do we perpetuate these cycles without even realizing it?
Despite a rocky start, this play does a serviceable and respectable job asking audiences the questions that need to be answered. Moss’s production is smart, well-paced and deeply moving, even if it does hold our hand a little too tight. Perhaps our hands need holding right now.
“Blood at the Root”
3 stars (out of four)
Through Oct. 29 at Paul Robeson Theatre, African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 general, $20 students and seniors (aaccbuffalo.org, 884-2013).