Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s remarkable play, Br’er Cotton, is as current as this morning. Powerful and passionate, Br’er Cotton reaches into the past as it reflects the miserable, torn, disaffected present. Ruffrino (excellent Omette Anassi) is a Black teenager consumed by the injustice he sees around him and the never-ending tragedy of Black men of all kinds gunned down or otherwise abused in situations that are questionable at best and criminal at worst. He has been radicalized by what he perceives, and by his incarcerated father. He acts out at school, wears the black beret of a Black Panther, and, when the play begins, intends to cause trouble at school. When his mother, Nadine (Yvonne Huff Lee in a sterling performance), discovers lighter fluid and a hatchet in his backpack, she grounds him, making him stay home.
Br’er Cotton is a generational play that reaches back in time, to show the pride of some cotton pickers in their work and the personal close-knit society that sustains them through slavery and the post-Civil War era. Ruffrino’s elderly grandfather (Christopher Carrington), a cheerful retired man who keeps secrets, espouses a go-along-to get-along attitude that Ruffrino scorns. The boy’s only solace is a violent on-line video game, in which he has made a friend of a girl named Caged_Bird99 (Emmaline Jacott), the only person that he can open up to. She is a poet and fierce fighter in the game. Dane Oliver and Jasmine Wright, an extraordinary pair of thrilling, gymnastic dancers, represent the teens’ online avatars.
Nadine supports her small family as a housecleaner, and strikes up a friendship with one of her clients, a white police officer (Shawn Law). He is a shy, gentle man, unsuited for his occupation, who entered the force almost as a fluke. After some hesitant awkwardness, they form a unique supportive relationship.
Under the savvy direction of Gregg T. Daniel, Br’er Cotton builds in power throughout the show, surging to a stunning climax without dénoument. The scenic design by David Mauer, with lighting by Wesley Charles Chew and projection design by Yee Eun Nam, makes excellent use of the limited space available at Zephyr Theatre, creating a credible kitchen, a cotton field, a niche for Caged_Bird99’s gaming chair, and a small scrim-shielded spot upstage center in which a field-hand mother (Ms. Lee) cradles her newborn baby and talks poetically of a perfect community. David B. Marling’s sound design is superbly evocative; Wendell C. Carmichael’s costume design supports character and action. Doug Oliphant is the movement and fight choreographer, and Michael Allen Angel created the property scheme.
Chief Justice Roberts claimed that, “our country has changed,” when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, recognized by many as a superficial opinion. Yes, much has changed in the country since Brown versus the Board of Education, but statistics show that the economic progress for Black Americans in general remains agonizingly slow.
Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisolm gets the last word: “I would love it if this play was rendered obsolete. If the text and the content of the play would become dated and outmoded as time went along. But it seems that with each day it becomes eerily more poignant. It’s an odd feeling to have the latest American racial tragedy make your play more relevant. However, I think this is the power of new plays; to be able to respond in real time and to use what’s happening in our world to fuel our art with more urgency and a bigger commitment to discussion.”
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s Br’er Cotton, produced by Theatre Planners, runs through October 29 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.