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Review of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton at Theatre503

BR’ER COTTON by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm - Credit: Helen Murray
BR’ER COTTON by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm – Credit: Helen Murray

#BlackLivesMatter is the driving force behind this play, a theme that is realised through the depiction of three generations of an African-American family, descended from slaves. Matthew is the grandfather, set in his ways, steeped in the perpetuated philosophy of “maybe things could change but they haven’t in my lifetime, which leads me to believe they ain’t gonna”. Matthew is old school. And on his way out.

Matthew’s daughter Nadine is a live-wire with dreams of a college education. With a husband in stir and a wild-child for a son she works all hours to try and keep up with the bills and put food on the table for the menfolk. Her son, Ruffrino, believes he’s the new Malcolm X. And he intends to prove it.

Trevor A. Toussaint as Grandfather Matthew is amusingly gruff and comically grumbly as he gently goads and needles both his daughter and his grandson, seemingly his sole preoccupation, as he nears the end of his life. He’s the archetypal old-stager who’s seen it all and done it all and has the original confederate uniform of his ancestor to prove it. In fact, though, his horizons have always been very limited. Toussaint mines every last scintilla of whimsically droll facetiousness out of this caricaturistic but plum role. And just before he pops his clogs he reveals a rich and deeply resonant singing voice in a moving rendition, with the rest of the family, of a cotton-field style African-American spiritual.

Kiza Deen as Nadine gives one of those rare inspired performances that warms the heart and energises the sensibilities. She’s passionate but restrained, angry but controlled and ultimately cruelly screwed by life-events beyond her control. Deen draws us in, shares her story and leads us through a maze of emotions with care and understanding. A beautifully touching performance.

She makes the most of some awkward scripting/direction where having sprayed the width of the stage she then mops that whole width – in slow motion. That’s tedious enough the first time: but three times? No. We get the point. She’s cleaning her life away! Don’t treat us like fools, please!

Son Ruffrino, played by Michael Ajao, is fourteen (going on twenty-two). There is little in his language or his movement to suggest he is fourteen, rather Director Roy Alexander Weise has decided to play Ruffrino as a full-on very mature, adult-like fourteen-year- old which is a shame as the role lacks subtlety and is entirely devoid of innocence. 14/15/16 are the years when the biggest changes in personality and maturity generally take place in young people and in my view writer Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm would have been better to have made Ruffrino sixteen: it would be much more realistic (and more convincing to play).

In trying to get inside a fourteen-year- old’s psyche Chisholm puts him into a video game – we see this enacted on stage. Thus is revealed a major plot-hole. Ruffrino (gamer tag “RUFFandRINO”) fights “redneck_swag”: the sole purpose of this appears go be a device to facilitate the repeated use of the ‘N’ word. Despite the name “redneck_swag” gamers are anonymous, they hide behind their gamer tag and “RUFFandRINO” would not know that “redneck_swag” is “white trash” and “redneck_swag” would not know that “RUFFandRINO” is a … er … ‘N’ word. This is borne out by the actual script as “RUFFandRINO” has an ally in the game: “CAGED_BIRD99” (Ellie Turner). He believes her to be black – until she eventually reveals, to his utter dismay, that she is white.

Far from developing the theme of #BlackLivesMatter the gaming sequences actually get in the way of the strong message that Chisholm is attempting to get across. They seem to have little relevance other than to spice up the script, which at times can be quite laboured, and become an unwelcome distraction.

Ruffrino ultimately ends up in his own real-life video game when he confronts a police officer who happens to be his Mother’s employer/friend. The officer is effectively and sympathetically played by Alexander Campbell whose hashtag would be #AllLivesMatter: I was a bit confused as to how that chimed with Chisholm’s strongly expostulated theme.

Designer Jemima Robinson has come up with a very effective set for the intimate Theatre 503 Studio space, aided and abetted by Amy Mae’s subtly immersive lighting and Louise Rhoades-Brown’s extraordinary video design: the projected “growing” cotton plants are a masterstroke.

The tree, though, that appears in the second half, constructed entirely of rope, and which has undoubtedly borne some of Billy Holiday’s “strange fruit” in the past, is an example of the play’s underlying weakness. It’s an entirely overblown metaphor – let’s patronise our audience because they’re never going to get that it’s a gibbet-exemplar – and the rope is, like the gaming sequences, entirely unnecessary. That is the prevailing flaw of this play: a lot of nuts are being cracked by a plethora of sledgehammers.

4 stars

Review by Peter Yates

Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton is a searing portrayal of the experience of a disenchanted African American teenage boy in Virginia. The play was shortlisted for both the Theatre503 Playwriting Award 2016 and the Relentless Award in the US. The production is directed by JMK Award winner Roy Alexander Weise.

Lynchburg, Virginia, on the former site of a cotton mill. 14 year old Ruffrino is struggling to make sense of his place in an impoverished world filled with seemingly random killings of young black men. As his anger towards reality grows, he moves further away from his family. Losing himself online, Ruffrino’s world sinks around him while he battles to wake up the zombies and prove by any means necessary that Black Lives Matter.

WRITER – Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm
DIRECTOR – Roy Alexander Weise
DESIGNER – Jemima Robinson
VIDEO DESIGNER – Louise Rhoades-Brown

RUFFRINO – Michael Ajao
NADINE – Kiza Deen
MATTHEW – Trevor A Toussaint
POLICE OFFICER – Alexander Campbell
CAGED_BIRD99 – Ellie Turner

7th – 31st March 2018


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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