Getting to the Root of It

by Tyler Reilly

in National Conference

Post image for Getting to the Root of It

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the national news media of late about privilege in American society and how it impacts our perception of selves and of one another. A misguided freshman at Princeton recently wrote an op-ed about a phrase he’d heard directed at him a few times since going away to school: “Check your privilege.” His belief in this country’s meritocracy myth allowed him to misinterpret the phrase, which was actually meant to help him understand how his experience as a straight, white, affluent man has kept him from experiencing some of the degradations so common to people who don’t fall into all of those categories.

I have a hard time blaming him, honestly, because until I started work on Blood at the Root a year and a half ago, I knew nothing of my own privilege, either. I fit into the same categories and can check the same boxes he can: white, straight, affluent, male. Hadn’t I experienced hardship? You bet. Who hasn’t? Hadn’t I worked hard for what I’d achieved? Of course I had. But I didn’t fully understand—and probably still don’t, really—the depth of my head start in life or how the economic, social and judicial systems in this country are designed with my needs and desires in mind. It took my Penn State M.F.A. acting cohort, along with Blood at the Root’s visionary creative team led by playwright Dominique Morisseau, director Steve Broadnax and choreographer Kikora Franklin.

When Dominique came to us in the winter of 2012 with a commission from the Penn State School of Theatre for its M.F.A. Acting students, we weren’t sure what to prepare for. We had read as much of her work as we could get our hands on—Follow Me to Nellie’s, Detroit ’67, Sunset Baby—but she arrived at Penn State without a play necessarily in mind. Her charge from Dan Carter, the school’s director, was simply to write a play on a topic of her choosing that used the six of us.

In the past we’ve had playwrights arrive with fully-formed pieces that used all of the M.F.A. class but didn’t necessarily suit the actors themselves, but what Dominique did was different: she used a week-long residency to get to know us as people and artists, leading everything from simple theater games to getting us to talk about “hot button” (to use a horrifying cliché) issues in a frank, unguarded way.

At this stage in our training the six of us—three black, three white—had already spent 15 months in extremely close proximity, sharing the kinds of experiences that bond a group of artists thrown together into an intensive program. We had had screaming fights that turned to weeping embraces and had shared things about ourselves that few (if any) outside the class knew. We had critiqued and challenged one another’s work, personalities and opinions from the beginning, but the stuff Dominique was bringing up for us to consider—race, poverty, violence, sexuality, justice—was stuff to which I don’t think we had ever really done more than pay elaborate lip service.

So we started talking. At first, one member of the company thought he had nothing of value to share. Or maybe he thought wouldn’t be heard with compassion, or didn’t care enough to find out one way or the other. Whatever the case, he held back and let the rest of us go at it. One woman let her opinions fly, feelings be damned, and I’m sure I said some things that sounded pretty tin-eared, too. I’m not special; I know if I heard my classmates say things that knocked me backward, it follows that I probably did the same in return.

We were speaking from places of absolute honesty, and out of that honesty can come some pretty brutal truths: you scare me, you don’t have a monopoly on suffering, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, did someone really do that to you, am I a bad person?

We’d talk about the things that made us most uncomfortable, that scared us, that we’d really rather not think about, and when we’d go to dinner at the end of the night, we’d keep talking. Dominique didn’t tell us what was going to come of all this talking, she just asked us to trust her, so I suppose we did. We must have—we kept talking.

And those conversations about race, poverty, violence, sexuality, justice, and others unearthed (and continue to unearth, a year and a half later) the issues I think I avoid in an effort to keep moving forward in life. Tackling those subjects is not simple for someone like me. What do I have to add to the conversation? What has my experience as a white, straight, affluent male taught me about what it is to be marginalized in society?

Next to nothing, as it turns out, so I did (and continue to do) a lot of listening to my fellow company members, who keep teaching me just how little I know about the world around me. That isn’t meant to invalidate my experiences—my struggles, my failures, my losses—it’s meant to remind me that my experience isn’t everyone’s. That can be a hard one for me to remember, honestly, but working on Blood at the Root has helped me do that more often than I had in the past.

The play is inspired the story of the Jena Six, a group of young black men who faced overly punitive sentences for a high school fight in Louisiana in 2007. Dominique had always been bothered by what happened in Jena, and when she met the six of us and we started exploring what those “hot button” issues stirred within each of us, she knew she had something to build on.

Rather boldly, we had entered the piece into the 2013 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, before there was a word of the play written down. In fact we didn’t even have a title at the program submission deadline, but Dominique chose a name and a vague, yet somehow enticing synopsis, and we were in.

Professor Charles Dumas, a leader on the issue of racial diversity at Penn State, had also been teaching part of the past several years in South Africa at the University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein. Charles worked with his South African friends and colleagues to turn our trip into a three-week tour that included stops in Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, Grahamstown and Cape Town.

Before we left, though, there was still this business of creating the play, and by May of 2013—about a month before we left for Africa—we had what Dominique called a “very messy first draft.” She had been in residence the month before and we had worked through some scenes, but this was the first time we had read through a script with a beginning, middle, and end.

I’m not sure anyone has ever worked with our model for devising this play: we spent a week in the winter with the playwright, having the conversations, playing the games and pushing the emotional buttons described above. She then went away and used those experiences for some initial scene sketches before coming back in the spring with some pages for us to work with and for her to hear. A month later, we received the final sections and saw how it all tied together, and it was with that “messy draft” that she included her blessing on whatever changes we felt necessary to best tell the story. Dominique put her faith in us that we would respect the play she had written and would work to tell that story in the most effective way we knew how. The first time she ever saw the play was with a paying audience in Grahamstown.

When we read the script the first time through, I think each of us at a different point reacted audibly: “Oh wow. How did she see that in me?” Somehow in the two weeks she spent at Penn State she had gleaned essential parts of us and injected them into our characters. We didn’t always like what she found, either. (Dominique has said before that if we left this process the same as we were going in, then she had failed in her responsibility to us.)

As we worked on the play, rearranging scenes, trimming them and cutting others completely, we had the sense that we had something that might work. The arguments that had started in our workshops with Dominique found their way into the play, and you could feel the life coursing through them as we argued points we believed in so completely.

Because we had no money for a set or road crew, we had to tell the story as imaginatively as possible. We repurposed six chairs throughout the play so that they served as classroom furniture in one scene and hall lockers in the next. Props and costumes had to be kept to an absolute minimum so that we could carry them between our hotels and venues each day, and we never got to rehearse with any more than fluorescent lights in a studio before we got on the plane to Johannesburg.

The day before we left, we invited a small group to watch a run-through at Penn State to find out if we did indeed have something, and after we finished the show we asked folks to stick around and let us know what they saw, what didn’t make sense, what could have been clearer, and other things like that.

What we didn’t expect was how emotional the response would be. One young black woman who had gone to high school in State College could barely get the words out as she told us how thankful she was to see her own story depicted onstage. She said she had never seen her story on a stage before, and it seemed that seeing our play had somehow validated her experiences as a member of the State College community.

I knew nothing of what she was talking about. Not really. She kept repeating how what she saw onstage had happened every day at her high school but that nobody was willing to talk about it. No one would address it, and by not addressing it, she seemed to be saying, they had been invalidating the reality of the situation. Where I grew up and everywhere I’ve lived since then, my needs have been tended to and my experiences have been understood by those in positions of authority. I’ve never had to explain what it’s like to be white, straight, affluent and male, because nearly every person who held power over me knew exactly what that experience was like because they were, too. It became clear to me that day that we had to keep having these conversations after the show. We needed to give people an opportunity to express whatever they were holding onto, to give them a forum where they could give voice to the things we typically silence.

But what would they think of us in South Africa? The hope was to be understood, first and foremost. Southern American dialects, a world defined by the rules and realities of American high school, and American slang all seemed to be stacking the deck against us, so it was with a bit of trepidation that we took our seats in front of that first audience at the Performing Arts Center of the Free State in Bloemfontein and asked them what they thought.

They were a completely mixed lot: black, white, colored (the South African term for people of mixed ethnic origin); male, female; young, middle-aged, old; and they were enthralled. One young black woman said that she had to take out a notebook in the middle of the performance so as not to forget a particular line, which then led to her a poem that just seemed to follow. She read it to us during that talkback. A colored man thanked us for bringing the play to Bloem; he said it perfectly encapsulated their experiences related to a recent hate crime perpetrated by white students at the University of the Free State against black university workers. (In fact that was a common response—“Thank you for bringing this to our town. We need to see things like this, especially here”—across the country.)

One middle-aged black man engaged in debate with a middle-aged white woman about the relative power of theatre and art in general, saying he was tired of coming to social-justice pieces where everyone in the room already believes what the playwright seems to believe, and wondering what the point of it all is. Her eloquent response about the power of art to start revolutions—why are the artists always the oppressive regime’s first targets? she asked—had everyone buzzing.

For the most part, we just sat and listened as they drove the conversation. They had plenty to say to us, to one another, and, I think, to themselves. They seemed shocked that we Americans were still grappling with our own racial landscape, and as we toured the country and I met black South Africans who could show me their Apartheid-era pass books, I realized that this was another layer to my historical, global privilege. As Louis C.K. says (only slightly hyperbolically), I could get into a time machine, go to any time, and it would be awesome when I got there. No questions asked. No pass books, no entrances I couldn’t use or places I couldn’t sit, and I think that finally hit home for me in South Africa.

When we got back to Pennsylvania, Dan Carter told us he’d grant us substantial seed money to take the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, and we took that offer and ran with it. We formed a company and created jobs for ourselves—I’m heading up the operation, and we have cast members coordinating our technical requirements, our marketing, and our educational outreach—and have gathered support from more than ten offices across the university.

Throughout the spring semester we performed at high schools and worked with students on the play’s themes, as well as touring the Penn State system, which culminated in a two-week run in State College. Everywhere we went, people wanted to talk after the show. It was like they needed permission to broach these subjects, and we gave them that permission. We heard young girls and children of color tell the mayor of State College that they didn’t feel safe in their hometown, and we heard old white men share stories of battling to overcome their parents’ racist indoctrination.

We are fortunate to be in South Africa right now, performing at the State Theatre in Pretoria, and have brought what we’ve learned from them and from our American audiences: that we don’t have all the answers, but we’re happy to ask the questions to get them talking. We have student workshops in Pretoria scheduled, and after working with American high schoolers, I am interested to see what differences and similarities come to the fore. I’m guessing that they’ll be more alike than not.

And then it will be up to Edinburgh for the month of August. The Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, that month-long international artistic melting pot where getting people to stop moving long enough to talk will constitute success, will be another place to learn from our audiences. Their stories are as yet unknown to us, and all I can pledge is my ear to try to pick up just a little bit more about this world we live in.

Tyler Reilly is a New York–based actor originally from Santa Rosa, California. He earned his B.A. in History with a minor in Theatre at Boston University, where he studied under Michael Maso, the Managing Director of the Huntington Theatre Company. He later went to work for the Huntington while pursuing a career as an actor in Boston. In 2011 he accepted a place at Penn State in the M.F.A. Acting program, where he has had the opportunity to work with Bill Irwin, Cicely Berry, and Ed Stern. For the past year and a half, he and his acting cohort have collaborated with playwright Dominique Morisseau on Blood at the Root, a new play inspired by the Jena Six. He has also served as Managing Director of Blood at the Root’s international tour, guiding the company’s day-to-day financial well-being and operational efficiency. More information is available at his website.

  • Kellye Rowland

    Wow. Wonderful piece. I had the gift of the opportunity to work with Dominique Morisseau in a theatre writing workshop when I was at Smith College a year ago or so and I have not forgotten it. I can only imagine what this process has been like for you and for everyone else involved. I often fear too that as a white woman, and a someone introverted, and timid one at that, I have very little to say on the subject of race and others’ experiences with race. The fact that it is still so scary to get into a discussion about it tells me that I should get myself into a discussion about it as soon as possible. Kudos to you, your team, and Dominique’s work and I look forward to seeing this play. Break a leg at the Fringe and thanks for your honest sharing of your experience throughout this process. Cheers!