A Review of Br’er Cotton

In short, “Br’er Cotton,” is the work of a promising young playwright and will appeal to many people disturbed by police violence and economic injustice.

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Omete Anassi, Yvonne Huff Lee, and Christopher Carrington / Photo by Ed Krieger

In the wake of several deaths of young black men at the hands of the police, a restless teen is determined to do something about it by any means at his disposal.

CAST: Omette Anassi (Ruffrino), Christopher Carrington (Matthew), Yvonne Huff (Nadine), Emmaline Jacott (Caged_Bird99), Shawn Law (Police Officer)

This new play by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm was selected by the National New Play Network for its “rolling world premiere” program. It is set in Lynchburg, Virginia, mostly inside an old house in bad need of repair, which sits on the site of a former cotton plantation.

Ruffrino, 14, lives in the house with his mother Nadine (Yvonne Huff) and grandfather Matthew (Christopher Carrington). Each household member represents a different worldview. After the shooting deaths of several young black men at the hands of white police officers, Ruffrino has become increasingly restless and angry. His mission is to draw attention to violence against young black men in any way he can. Ruffrino attempts to escape his increasing rage from playing online video games. Unfortunately, even while shooting avatars in cyberspace with Caged_Bird99 (Emmaline Jacott), his favorite online playmate, Ruffrino can’t completely escape intrusions by bigots. Nadine is the breadwinner of the family. She works as a maid but is secretly attending college to become a nurse. Meanwhile, Matthew tries to discourage Ruffrino’s acts of civil disobedience as a waste of time.

Ruffrino’s relationship with Caged_Bird99 is tested when he learns some surprising things about her. Ruffrino also discovers that Matthew might be hiding something of value from the struggling family. Meanwhile, Nadine forms a bond with a white police officer (Shawn Law), who seems to be the only person that will listen to her. These and other discoveries lead to a disturbing conclusion.

Chisholm’s play cannot be criticized for lack of ambition. ”Br’er Cotton” is first and foremost, a story about the struggles of a contemporary working-class family, but it also touches upon many other issues. Some of the issues explored are the legacy of slavery, cyberbullying and of course, police brutality. Chisholm also demonstrates an ear for dialog and capturing the diverse voices of its characters.

There’s no denying the prescient nature of the material and its ability to elicit strong reactions from the audience. However, its juxtaposition of naturalistic contemporary scenes with elements of magic realism doesn’t always feel like it’s from the same play.

“Br’er Cotton” is imaginatively staged by Gregg T. Daniel, who gets uniformly strong performances from his cast. In Anassi’s skillful and focused performance, he captures Ruffrino’s adolescent rage powerfully. It’s reminiscent of Glenn Plummer’s early performance in Casey Kurtti’s “Three Ways Home” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center a generation ago. The characters of Nadine and Matthew are a bit more familiar, but Huff and Carrington play their respective roles with conviction. Law brings some much-needed levity to the play as the friendly police officer and Jacott is very convincing as Ruffrino’s online gaming buddy.

David Mauer’s efficiently designed set works effectively between the various contemporary and cotton field scenes. Additionally, the uses of various audio-visual elements (including Yee Eun Nam’s stunning video imagery and David B. Marling’s sound design) work well to tell the story.

In short, “Br’er Cotton,” is the work of a promising young playwright and will appeal to many people disturbed by police violence and economic injustice.

“Br’er Cotton” is produced by Racquel Lehrman. Misha Riley serves as assistant producer. Jenine MacDonald is the stage manager.

“Br’er Cotton” runs through Sunday, October 29th, 2017 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. Saturdays and Mondays, 8 p.m. Sundays (no performances October 9th), 3 p.m. (323) 960-7745. Running time is approximately two hours with an intermission. Their website is www.lower-depth.com/on-stage.

(Zephyr Theater/Los Angeles)

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