Following the pandemic, UpStage Theatre is back with a regional premiere of Dominque Morisseau's "Blood at the Root."
The company will open its 19th season with the production at 7 p.m. June 25 in the DeBose Music Hall on the Southern University campus. A second performance will be at 3 p.m. June 27.
The production, sponsored by the SU School of Education SHEEO Project, will mark the first time "Blood at the Root" has been performed in the South, and it will feature live music, along with audience sessions after each performance.
Morisseau's story is inspired by the real-life story of six Black high school students known as the Jena 6 and the 2006 incidents leading to their incarceration and eventual release in the town of Jena.
The story starts with a tree that stood in front of the school, where the White kids gathered at lunchtime. It's also where Morisseau's fictional tale of Cedar High School begins in "Blood at the Root."
"In the story, Raylynn, a young, Black girl, decides to run for class president because there has never been a class president that looked like her," says Ava Brewster Turner, UpStage Theatre's founder and artistic director. "She then sits under the tree with the White students at lunchtime, and the next day, there's a noose hanging from it."
Racial tensions escalate from there, leading to the assault of the school's White quarterback, Colin, played by 17-year-old Baton Rouge Magnet High School senior Dean Schwarzhoff.
"He's a transfer student from the North," Schwarzhoff said. "He's never been to the South, and he's a little bit arrogant about the customs. He's aggressive and confident, and he gets heated easily."
As racial tensions continue to build, Colin gets confrontational with six Black male students, whose attack land him in the hospital.
Meanwhile, Raylynn, played by 24-year-old Seynabou Diack, is wrestling with her own problems. Her mother passed away three years earlier, and her family is still trying to cope with the loss.
And in the midst of her campaign for class president, she learns that her brother is among the group known in the play as the Cedar 6. Complicating matters even more is the fact that he initiated the attack.
"But Raylynn is a fighter," Diack said. "She knows a lot of people doubt her, but she doesn't show it. She fights for everything she has."
Diack was in middle school when the Jena 6 was in the national spotlight. Her mother joined people from throughout the country in the march on Jena, where civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton advocated for release of the Jena 6.
Turner also joined in the 2007 March.
"My mom told me stories about the march, and she's so excited that I'm doing this play," Diack said. "This way, I can be a part of it, too."
Due to strong language and mild adult content, the play is not recommended for those younger than age 12. Tickets are $25 by calling (225) 924-3774 or visiting upstagetheatre.biz.