A tiny, black stage has been vandalised with the names of the dead. A list, scribbled across the auditorium walls, is like a wound from which the names of black men shot dead by American police bleed out. Sometimes the names feel like tentacles, reaching out into the world from the intimate, domestic moments of Br’er Cotton, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s funny, painful and highly personal play about racism, directed here on its UK premiere by Roy Alexander Weise. Or maybe they are reaching into the play, to strangle the stressed-out family at at its heart.
Fourteen-year-old angry young man Ruffrino lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, and he can take it no more: he’s ready to act, to fight back, with violence if necessary. His anger is visceral, encompassing all white people, and a family and community he views as zombies. More jaded and disillusioned, his mother and grandfather fear for him, articulating their points of view beautifully, highlighting the complexity beyond a teenager’s black-and-white certainty. Chisholm’s ease with dialogue creates believable familial moments, never falling over into exposition or polemic.
Ruffrino’s anger – and fear – come to a head when a race riot breaks out in nearby Charlottesville and his mother, a cleaner, befriends a white policeman for whom she works as a maid. But Br’er Cotton is no tub-thumper. Essentially, it’s a family affair. A simple, ever-shifting kitchen table plays host to most of the scenes. The power lies in this intimacy; in exploring how politics inflect the domestic and how our closest relationships shape our interactions with the world beyond them.
Although there is a cast of five, most exchanges play out as two-handers: mother-son, grandfather-grandson, father-daughter, cleaner-employee, friend-friend. It’s from the fractures in these relationships that the humour, sadness, joy and despair of facing the world as it is and navigating the desire to make it better reaches out to punch the audience in the guts.
In one of the most telling scenes between Ruffrino and his grandfather, Matthew – this family address each other by their first names, creating another layer of tension and meaning – questions whether the revolution should begin at home, by first treating each other with respect. In others, we feel the weight of parental expectation, how people protect themselves from fear of failure with low ambition, the shifting nature of identity across generations, and the possibilities and problems of friendship across racial and social divides.
But it’s funny, too. Laugh-out-loud funny. The writing doesn’t shy away from life’s absurdity and ironies. Indeed, people can be very silly when talking about very serious things. Michael Ajao as Ruffrino has ridiculously expressive face, able to inflect every look with oodles of energy and emotion, while rocking his Black Panther beret, leather jacket and shades. The stage can barely contain him. Trevor A Toussaint as the saggy, dressing gown-wearing Matthew exudes warm humour, but also brims with the pessimism born of a lifetime of disappointment. Kiza Deen’s Nadine is the show’s emotional heart, wracked with guilt over her own lack of achievement and fearful for her son’s future, her scenes with her policeman-employer – played with delightful comic timing by Alexander Campbell – are hilarious in their exploration of the excruciatingly awkward moments of social interaction.
Not all of it works. With projections, scenery and big performances, things occasionally feel cluttered, sapping the play of its directness. Ruffrino’s virtual life in an online game and his friendship with the Maya Angelou-quoting Caged_Bird99 in particular feel overburdened and a little too on-the-nose. But for straight-up heart, ambition and brilliance Br’er Cotton can’t be faulted, and could seriously set a far bigger stage than Theatre503’s alight. Let’s hope that moment is nigh.
Br’er Cotton is at Theatre503 until March 31st. For more details, click here.