Showstopping Columbia play ‘Blood at the Root’ to take center stage at South Side theatre

By Olivia Cohen, News Editor

Kayla Macedo

Shockwaves ran through Ashley Keys’ body when she heard the expected end of her show’s run was actually just the beginning.

Keys, a senior theatre directing major and director of the play “Blood at the Root,” will be uprooted from her spring venue of Columbia’s Getz Theatre Center, 72 E. 11th St., and will be setting up at the eta Creative Arts Theater on Chicago’s South Side.

“I was in complete shock. I think I just started shaking,” Keys said while reminiscing about when she first learned her show would be remounted. “It was really intense because the show is going to transform into something more than I ever could have thought of.”

The African-American theatre and art museum, located at 7558 S. South Chicago Ave., was founded in 1971 by the eta Creative Arts Foundation.

“Blood at the Root” is a play based on the true story of the “Jena Six,” a group of Black high school students who were accused of assaulting a white classmate in 2006. The play is set in Jena, Louisiana, and dives into the topic of race and identity in America, as reported by the Chronicle.

“Blood at the Root” gained attention from the eta Creative Arts Theater from Sonita Surratt, an adjunct faculty member in the Theatre Department who also works for the theatre. Surratt attended the last show and wanted to add the show to the theatre’s summer programming.

Keys said Surratt and the theatre were attracted to the play because of the chemistry between the small cast of six actors, even calling the cast the “heart” of the show.

“I am so excited,” Keys said. “It shows that Columbia and just theatre in general needs to invest more and learn more about Black and Brown stories. When those stories get told, amazing things could happen.”

Keys said it feels heartwarming to know that, even with the small cast of six students who performed “Blood at the Root,” their voices can still be heard in a different light, and people outside of the Columbia community can hear this story.

John Green, a professor in the Theatre Department and coordinator of senior “Directing III” productions, oversaw the production of “Blood at the Root,” from beginning to end.

“[It was] really fantastic. … What was great was that the director of the local theatre went back for a second time to see it,” Green said. “We have a wealth of great talent coming through the directing department, and Ashley’s production struck a chord.”

Green said Keys is currently one of the few students of color in the directing program. Green added that the combination of Keys’ experience with the play, the way she directed, the timeliness of the production and the issues the play deals with all contributed to the play being revived.

“It all came together beautifully,” Green said. “Having it picked up by a local theatre is not surprising because of the quality of the production that Ashley created.”

Stephanie Shaw, a professor of instruction and coordinator of the directing program in the Theatre Department, also worked with Keys on “Blood at the Root,” when Keys directed it for her “Directing II” course, which was entirely on Zoom.

Shaw said after pursuing a 20-minute version of the play via Zoom, Keys took “Blood at the Root” to her next directing class to perform again but this time on stage for a 60- to 90-minute play.

Shaw said Keys was the first student in her experience to pursue the same play but in a more comprehensive way. Shaw added that revivals of plays like this “never” happen, adding to the significance of an outside theatre company picking up a collegiate production.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of it. … I’ve been with the [Theatre] Department for forever and never in my six years of directing has a show been picked up by somebody,” Shaw said. “I am so happy for Ashley because I think it’s going to help her transition fabulously.”

Before the play departs from the college, “Blood at the Root” will have three performances at Columbia’s annual Manifest, on May 12 at 7 p.m. and on May 13 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

The summer performances for “Blood at the Root” at the eta Creative Arts Theater will take place during the four weekends between June 23 and July 17, with four performances per weekend. Keys said, as of now, the full cast and crew from the Columbia performances are planning to stay on for the summer shows as well.

“I was expecting: ‘Okay, do the show, graduate, you’re done,’” Keys said. “To know that these amazing things have surfaced out of this last year and specifically this last semester at Columbia has just been unreal.”

Tickets to “Blood at the Root” will be made available on the eta Creative Arts Theater’s website.