Rolling premiere of ‘Br’er Cotton’ hits some potholes at the CPT
By Bob Abelman
Borrowing heavily from the Old Plantation folktales featuring Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Br’er Cotton” is a modern-day parable filled with heroic deeds, magic and moral guidance.
The problem is that these elements fail to come together on the page or on the Cleveland Public Theatre stage, resulting in an ambitious but discombobulated piece of storytelling.
The play begins with a young mother holding her babe and telling us a story about Br’er Cotton, a rebellious and impatient young soul born in the cotton fields of the South who desires to break into heaven.
We are then introduced to members of the Witherspoon family, who live in an impoverished neighborhood in Amherst County, Virginia during a recent killing of a young black man by a white police officer in nearby Charlotte.
Ruffrino (Joshua McElroy) is an angry, politically aware 14-year-old and our Br’er Cotton, who rants about “The Man” and attempts to escape reality through online game playing.
His mother Nadine (Samantha V. Richards) is too busy cleaning houses, keeping tabs on her son and providing for her family to give much notice to the world around her.
Grandfather Matthew (Peter Lawson Jones) has succumbed to the unexceptional nature of his bloodline and spends his time rambling like Uncle Remus about the past while counting the days until his demise.
Meanwhile, the cotton field on which the Witherspoon house has been built and in which generations of enslaved and indentured Witherspoons have toiled tightens its hold on the family and slowly sucks it underground.
The writing fluctuates between pedestrian prose espousing the same racial injustices better expressed in dozens of more powerful CPT productions and occasional bouts of poetry. Most of the verse is offered by Caged Bird_99 (Sara Bogomolny), an online gamer who Ruffrino believes to be black, free-spirited and like-minded but is actually white and burdened with cerebral palsy.
The other white person in the play is a kindly police officer (Beau Reinker) who befriends Nadine in a series of improbable scenes and is the antithesis of the brutal racist cop at the heart of Ruffrino’s wrath and talk of revolution.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson does her best to give this production a sense of fluidity and continuity, and to bring the moral to the forefront, but the script fights her at every turn.
Designers Wes Calkin (scenic), Benjamin Gantose (lighting), Inda Blatch-Geib (costume), T. Paul Lowry (video projection) and Ryan T. Patterson (special effects) try to balance the play’s interspersing of naturalistic drama and magical realism, but their efforts cannot undo the script’s clumsy transitions from one to the other.
Case in point is the extended scene that abruptly emerges in the middle of the play that turns the house into the cotton fields of the pre-Civil War South. Here, the now-happy family members sing as they go about their work, which is an intriguing excursion into the folktale motif that lurks behind this play but which comes across as awkward and contrived.
The actors seem handcuffed by all this.
Jones is committed to living in the world of magical realism that plays too broadly and artificially during the drama that dominates this play. McElroy is living in the white hot drama that does not register when the play turns poetic and magical. And Richards, Bogomolny and Reinker never quite find their footing, at least not on opening night.
This CPT production is the final installment of the rolling world premiere process in which the playwright continued to develop his play after stagings at Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, where a similar shooting took place in July 2016, and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles, the home of the 1991 Rodney King beating and a Super Bowl Sunday shooting this past March. Cleveland, of course, still suffers from the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014.
In an email exchange, Chisholm noted that the extended revision process entailed “excavation, digging deeper into the play and examining the layers.”
The play would benefit from more attention being paid to the big-picture issues, particularly if there will be stagings in the many other cities where black men have been shot and killed by white police and the wounds are still tender to the touch. A really good folktale can still be a powerful and healing elixir.
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN:Through April 21
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30, call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 7, 2018.
Lead image: Peter Lawson Jones as Matthew. Photo / Steve Wagner