Chicago Theatre Review
The Yard ups the ante with astonishing ‘Blood at the Root’
Last year, The Yard – a youth-driven theater company composed of actors and creatives in Chicago Public Schools – staged a production of Kirsten Greenidge’s “Milk Like Sugar” at Raven Theater, and the result was one of the year’s most urgent, passionate evenings of theater. And now, partnering with Jackalope Theatre, The Yard has produced an even better show, this one a staging of the amazing Dominique Morisseau’s “Blood at the Root.”
A fearless play based on the true story of the “Jena 6,” “Blood” is set in a Louisiana high school, one where racial tensions match the region’s legendarily intense heat. When Raylynn, a Black student (played by the remarkable Ireon Roach), decides to sit under a grand oak tree normally reserved for the school’s white students, three nooses are hung from the branches the next day, an act of racial terrorism that places the school on high alert and, eventually, leads to six students being charged as adults for assault.
A taut 80-minute production, “Blood at the Root” could not come at a better time. Whether it is examining white guilt, cultural differences, or the infuriatingly slow pace at which the Black experience is accepted by mainstream America, Morisseau’s writing burns with righteous fury and extreme precision, putting the significance of the Jena 6 squarely within the larger context of American race relations. And directors Joel Ewing and Will Kiley bring terrifically realized performances from their young ensemble. Roach was one of the standout performers in “Milk Like Sugar,” and her acting instincts and stage presence have only increased in the year since that production – a year that, I should add, saw her win the August Wilson Monologue Competition (watch her performance here). Charming, charismatic, and aggressive, Roach is a true talent to watch, and I am excited to see her in future Chicago productions.
And of course, Roach is complemented by a whole cast of similarly talented high schoolers. As Colin, a closeted high school quarterback, Brian Baren is sympathetic and instantly likable; as Toria, the independent (and slightly grating) reporter for the school paper, Jenna Makkawy is funny and engaging; and as Justin, the indecisive editor of said paper, Tevion Lanier (another veteran from the ‘Milk Like Sugar’ production) burns with a quiet intensity, which erupts in riveting fashion.
And finally, I’d be remiss if I did not heap some praise upon Mykele Deville and Kiki Layne, who coached the astonishing poetry and movement of the show. Throughout the play, the actors bridge scenes with musical/spoken word segments, using anything from stomping, clapping, and other kinds of body percussion to bring the themes and emotions of Morisseau’s writing into the musical sphere. It is downright thrilling to watch, and one of the highlights of this most urgent, necessary production.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through April 29 by The Yard and Jackalope Theatre, 1106 W Thorndale, Chicago
Tickets are available by calling visiting www.jackalopetheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.