Movement and fixedness contend expressively in Theater Alliance’s “Blood at the Root,” Dominique Morisseau’s play about a school shaken by violence, hate speech and racial tensions. An oak tree on campus comes to represent the entrenched prejudice and systemic inequities fueling the crisis. In director Raymond O. Caldwell’s canny production, the tree’s silhouette often glows from a wall of graffiti-scrawled lockers. The branches are rigid, static.
In contrast, the students of Cedar High are a hive of restless energy. In the production’s terrific opening, the backpack-toting kids mill, square off and execute pulsing dance moves, occasionally pausing to vogue with their phones. The activity evokes camaraderie and confrontation, and highlights the potential that may get squandered when they run up against, or succumb to, racism and other unyielding American realities.
The opening is just one many sequences that make stirring and meaningful use of movement. Choreographer Tiffany Quinn is a major asset to the show, which is the first Theater Alliance production directed by Caldwell, the company’s new producing artistic director.
Not that the movement in “Blood at the Root” crowds out the words. Inspired by the Jena 6 case in 2006, Morisseau’s thoughtful play captures conversation, argument, faltering friendships and introspection among the students. After the determined Raylynn (Billie Krishawn) and other African American students sit beneath the oak tree, occupying a traditionally whites-only space, nooses are hung from its branches. A subsequent fight leaves black students facing grave criminal charges.
The standout performance in this competently acted production comes from Molly Shayna Cohen, who aces the quirky diction and mannerisms of Raylynn’s friend Asha. Paul Roeckell is persuasive as a vulnerable football player; Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour packs personality into De’Andre, Raylynn’s brother; and Stephanie Wilson bristles engagingly as an alienated student journalist.
But it’s the design team that, together with the movement, adds the most polish. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set contributes to both realistic and hauntingly stylized scenes. T.W. Starnes’s sound design, full of propulsive pop music, ratchets up the suspense. And Alexandra Kelly Colburn’s projections add an urgent, up-to-the moment vibe.
Artful design also adds to the impact of Rep Stage’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” another production about the intersection of race and violence in America. In director Paige Hernandez’s effective staging of the documentary-theater solo show, written by Anna Deavere Smith, a jumbled indoor-outdoor landscape — traffic signs, chain fence, furniture, trash — conveys the life-altering chaos of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (Debra Kim Sivigny is the scenic designer.)
The compelling Danielle A. Drakes ranges around this environment, altering her voice and movement, and donning the odd garment, so as to transform into dozens of idiosyncratic characters who experienced the riots in different ways. (Smith distilled the script from interviews.) Memorable figures include a pregnant cashier hit by a stray bullet, a juror looking back on a trial with pain and indignation, and the confident congresswoman Maxine Waters remembering crashing a meeting at the White House.
Hope Villanueva’s valuable sound design reaches its apogee with the unnerving sound of a rock hitting a camera. You feel that you’re on the other side of the shattered lens.
Blood at the Root, by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell; assistant directors, Aria Velz and Timothy Thompson; lighting design, Alberto Segarra. With Deimoni Brewington, Imani Branch, Charles H. Franklin IV, Jordan Clark Halsey, Maria Mainelli and Alex Turner. About 90 minutes. $30-$40. Through March 24 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. 202-241-2539. theateralliance.com.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Paige Hernandez; costume design, Jessica Welch; lighting and projection design, Sarah Tundermann; properties, Kasey Hendricks. About 105 minutes. $10-$40. Through March 17 at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md. 443-518-1500. repstage.org.