Writer: Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm
Director: Roy Alexander Weise
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Works like Br’er Cotton are an excellent opportunity for reflection on what role theatre should take in social discourse. In an interview for Theatre 503, writer Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm tells us that a driving force behind the creation and development of the work was anger – the creative process was a way for him to work through and make something out of the anger he felt at the emerging social and racial situation in the US. This is the first time the award-winning play is being staged outside the US – and if it was timely when it made its debut in 2016, it’s lost none of its relevance today.
This anger doesn’t smoulder or get hinted at – it’s thrown out with frenzy and force. It’s reeling and coming to terms with modern day racism, inequality and poverty. Its calmer moments show us the roots that keep this sort of violent rage from being unmoored entirely.
Ruffrino is 14, he’s black, he’s a gamer and he’s fired up with political ideas that he sees as an escape from the world which is being built around him. His mother, Nadine and grandfather Matthew can only look on as he works himself into fever pitch – preventing him from bringing weapons to school once, but can they do it again? A frustrated loner (where, recently, have we heard that description coming from the US news?) he finds an outlet in video games – before that world too starts to turn on him.
Illustrating the history of his family from slaves in the cotton fields of Tennessee through a line of house cleaners, Matthew tries to talk the boy down from doing something radical. Fusing multimedia projection, a simple but devastatingly effective set design (from Jemima Robinson) and some very tender storytelling into this maelstrom of raging words ensures this play’s anger has a base of emotional grounding from which to spring. It’s not just a rant, it’s righteous, frustrated and targeted anger.
It’s a super performance from the small cast. Accents perfect – seemingly showing the modern American south as it is, not as a cleaned up version for theatre-types. As Ruffrino, Michael Ajao is a powerful presence bringing us on board as he looks to derail his world. As Nadine, Kiza Deen offers a different view of strength – a force trying to keep things together in the face of terrible odds.
It’s a story and a performance that really should be seen. It’s not glossy, deals with some really serious issues and presents them in a way we in the UK generally only get from a US media filter (though, yes, in fairness this is also media). To some, this is a story about a time and place they don’t know exists. Importantly, however, there are thousands, millions of people in the UK who do know this exists, who live a version of it each day. For some in the audience this will be something like an exploratory trip – something completely new that they may have heard about and want to see if it’s real or not. For others, this two and a bit hour show will be familiar territory they will have read about and sympathised with, maybe even acted on to try and help change. Others will see an echo of their own experience – their own struggles and rage reflected back on them from an angry stage. For either one of those reasons, and many, many more, this is a valuable bit of work.
Runs until 31 March 2018 | Image: Helen Murray