What is it like for young black children to grow up in the US in the age of Black Lives Matter? So asks Br’er Cotton, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s new play, set in a Virginia community on the site of a former cotton mill.
Fourteen-year-old Ruffrino Witherspoon is newly militant and filled with hate for the police, disdain towards the justice system and anger at white people. His father is serving a life sentence in prison. His mother, Nadine, works constantly as a maid, and his grandfather Matthew, who claims his own death is imminent, rubbishes most of his grandson’s politics.
The script is bold, brave and very, very funny, as well as feeling impressively fast-paced for a production that runs for two hours and 15 minutes. As Ruffrino, Michael Ajao expresses teenage rage well, and his interactions with Trevor A Toussaint’s charming, droll Matthew help to show the generational divide that many young people experience when dissecting politics with their relatives. Kiza Deen is wonderful as Nadine, and her part is extremely well written: each time she comes on stage, we are reminded that for many struggling black mothers, grand ideas of revolution come second to paying the bills.
The script and actors more than hold their own, but it’s Br’er Cotton’s creative team that really shines. Roy Alexander Weise’s direction makes use of a compact space with ease; the actors almost glide across the stage, and the framing of more dreamlike sequences is impressive. Amy Mae’s lighting allows the shifts from kitchen to moonlit cotton field to dystopian video-game wasteland appear seamless, while Harry Johnson’s sound design is subtle but deeply effective.
Incorporating video tech is particularly tricky on small stages; too much and you risk overwhelming the actors, too little and the audience may wonder what the point is. Br’er Cotton finds the middle ground, with video designer Louise Rhoades-Brown skilfully bringing Chisholm’s more abstract stage directions to life.
Jemima Robinson’s simple stage design is arresting: walls are adorned with the names, ages, location and year of death of dozens of African Americans in the US who have been killed by police. It gives the effect of the dead closing in on the Witherspoons. They are surrounded by them. The surprise post-interval staging change is also a visual treat.
Not all moments work as well as others. While Ellie Turner as Ruffrino’s Xbox Live partner (known only as Caged_Bird99) plays the space between earnest and hopeful well, her renditions of spoken word-like poetry edge towards cringe. The final-act revelation of who she really is and her too-brief discussion of disability similarly feel a little clunky. Ruffrino’s final showdown with a white police officer doesn’t have much in the way of dramatic suspense and Br’er Cotton’s ending feels depressingly inevitable – although perhaps that’s the point. Jarring and painful, the play’s final scene allows Ruffrino to look like what he is: a terrified teenage boy, buckling under the weight of a violent world he is too young to deal with. This is an important play, and a great one, that will leave audiences thinking for a long time.