US plays get to the root of racism

Originally published in Cue.

Race is a topic that is never far from the national consciousness of a country like South Africa, but two plays from the United States at this year’s Festival make a powerful statement about the racism present in the “land of the free”.

Blood at the Root is based on events in Jena, Louisiana, in 2007 when six black high school students were charged with attempted murder for a schoolyard fight after nooses were hung from a tree in the school courtyard.

The other production, Roots,  Rhythm and Revolution, deals with the playwright’s need to explore her African roots and the origin of her ancestors.

Poet and playwright Dominique Morisseau was commissioned by Pennsylvania State University to write Blood at the Root.

She chose the story of the Jena Six because it illustrated both ignorance of the history of race issues amongst American youth and the low value placed upon the lives of young black men in her country.

Director Steve Broadnax was amazed by the  play’s resonance with South African audiences, as his understanding of South African race relations came through the writing of Athol Fugard.

Both he and Morisseau found particular relevance in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1976.

Blood at the  Root was performed in Bloemfontein and at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and is moving to Cape Town this week.

“In every city, we have been told why it is relevant and why it is important that we are doing this play in that city,” said actor Tyler Reilly, who plays a quarterback.

Wéma Harris, writer and star of Roots, Rhythm and Revolution, is deeply critical of the institutional racism that she and other African-Americans face back home. Ironically, Harris claims that racism has become increasingly overt under the
presidency of Barack Obama, who is currently in Africa on state visits.

Harris mentions a friend with a doctorate from Harvard who was once arrested on entirely spurious charges while walking home. “No matter what you do with your life, to the cops you’re just another black boy in a hoodie,” she says, referring also to Trayvon Martin, the boy who was murdered in Florida in February 2012.

Harris decided to bring her play to Festival after attending for the first time last year. While it is easy to assume that inequality is unique to South Africa, both these plays are clear demonstrations that these issues are universal and resonate  across international borders.

“This is not going away and we need to face it head on,” Harris says.

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