Br’er Cotton: powerful scream against racial inequality

This article was commissioned by The Upcoming, where it appeared for the first time.
Photo Credit: Helen Murray

Anger is often the mother of revolution. That’s also what Ruffino thinks: the more outraged he is, the more impactful his actions will be. Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chrisholm shares a lot of the fury of Br’er Cotton’s 14-year-old protagonist, and puts all his anger and fervour into this powerful original play – now at Theatre503.

In the turbulent America where young black people are shot down by white policemen, Ruffino (Michael Ajao) seeks revenge. He wants to set things right: all humans as equals, regardless of the colour of their skin.

The online world acts as a vent for his thirst for violence – and as his only friendly refuge. However, in his house in Lynchburg, Virginia, his grandfather Matthew (Trevor A Toussant) tries to make him understand that “Witherspoon won’t never leave a mark in history” – as they never have done, even over many generations –, while his mother Nadine (Kiza Deen) is out all day to work as a cleaner.

The setting – and the role of the stage in the narrative – is very well curated. With neat projections – and the background wall disappearing in order to open a window into the past, or a devastated Xbox world – the actors are free to interact with the space and move in time as the story develops or memories are recalled.

Photo Credit: Helen Murray
The sound design also doesn’t leave anything to chance, from the subdued volume of the music coming from the headphones to the crowd’s choruses in the distance.

Trevor A Toussant is superb. The grandpa offers his wisdom in an attempt to stop Ruffino’s blind aggression, blending into scenes with disarming submission to the status quo – however unfair it may be. The first act is mostly set up on his humour, – which the actor brilliantly keeps lively, and never prosaic.

The dialogues are rapid, interwoven with the instability of teenagers, but also with the bewildering nature of breaking news. The play is absolutely topical, and it has the strength to scream about the injustice going on – though not in a disordered way, rather channelled into a real-life story.

The script comprises the difficulties of a broken family and the elusive sense of identity. The cotton buds symbolise the oppression of black people, but at the same time, they stand as an image of tenderness – the emblem of a community which comes together in the good and bad moments.

The story of black slaves in the cotton fields carries all the weight of an impoverished and enclosed destiny. However, the show doesn’t get dragged down by these memories or dwell on the misery of the past, but rather – by featuring the mighty chants of the main characters – sustains the narrative in a pleasantly balanced structure.

- Read the article on The Upcoming 

Dates: 7 - 31 March 2018
Venue: Theatre503