Set in a Louisiana high school around 2007, Dominique Morisseau’s gripping play, 'Blood at the Root', directed by Marti Gobel, explores racial tensions among Black and white youths without being preachy or condescending.

Saturday’s performance of Blood at the Root at Next Act Theater (255 S. Water St.) showcased an exceptionally talented young cast of six. Just 17 years old, Chantae Miller displayed acting chops seldom seen in actors twice her age in her portrayal of Raylynn, a strong-willed, overachieving high school senior coping with the death of her mother, who was killed by a drive-by shooting. Her brother De’Andre (Justin Lee), a junior on the high school football team, is focused on one thing: getting a college scholarship and moving his family out of their crime-ridden neighborhood.

Toria (Grace DeWolff) a pink-haired outsider determined to make it as an investigative journalist, tries to convince school newspaper editor Justin (Ibraheem Farmer) to print stories with teeth rather than exposés on bad cafeteria food, but Justin prefers not to rock the boat. Meanwhile, transfer student and team quarterback Colin (Casey Hoekstra) struggles with his sexuality.

Chantae Miller as Raylynn and Casey Hoekstra as Colin; photo courtesy of Next Act Theater

Determined to make a change, Raylynn, who is Black, decides to sit under a large oak tree on school grounds, a place where only popular white kids congregate. The next day, three nooses are discovered hanging from the tree. Frustrated and angry with the school administrator’s lack of response to what many believe is a cruel, racially-motivated prank, the high school senior organizes a protest, an action that leads to each character’s examination of their own prejudices – and near-disastrous consequences.

Morisseau’s dialogue is humorous yet serious, playful yet wise and, above all, very believable. Her dramatic use of monologue is particularly effective. The audience gleans a lot of valuable information from the playwright’s characters through a handful of emotionally weighty speeches, including those delivered by Raylynn’s friend Asha (April Paul) who, although white, feels more accepted by the Black community.

Toria (Grace DeWolff) and Justin (Ibraheem Farmer); photo courtesy of Next Act Theater

High school senior Justin explains why he prefers to be studious and follow the rules, rather than making waves (garnering racial epithets from other Black students). And Toria reveals that her abolitionist ancestors have influenced her commitment to fighting racial injustices.

All characters are dressed in black and white, a mix of what appears to be football jerseys and private school uniforms, costumes designed by director Gobel. Accessories like rubber bracelets, gold hair ribbons and Converse sneakers give each character more of an individual stamp.

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The entire performance is set against the backdrop of a large and monstrous oak tree, designed by Jason Fassl (who doubles as lighting designer). The tree is wrapped in twine with claw-like branches, perhaps to symbolize the insidious and rooted nature of racism.

Jazz-inspired hip-hop composed by Kemet Gobel, coupled with Alicia Rice’s urban choreography, gives the play added youthful and powerful energy.

Go See It: Blood at the Root; through Feb. 24 at Next Act Theater.