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.

“Br’er Cotton”
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN:Through April 21
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30, call 216-631-2727 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 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

From left, Beth Wood, Nicole Sumlin, Abigail Anika Smigelj, Trey Gilpin PHOTO | Steve Wagner

Grand ambitions, good intentions not quite realized in Cleveland Public Theatre’s regional premiere of ‘Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play’

By Bob Abelman

Maybe it’s our newfound awareness that pollution and overconsumption are driving the planet to ruin. Perhaps it’s our increasing dependence on technology or the tension generated by the current state of global politics. There’s been a rash of post-apocalyptic fiction and television in recent years, from “The Hunger Games” trilogy and “The Maze Runner” to “The Walking Dead” and “Falling Skies.”

None is as funny as Anne Washburn’s wild, three-act dystopian comedy “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” which opened at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., in 2012, had an Off-Broadway run in 2013, and is getting its regional premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre.

While the play is poignantly wrought and addresses serious, big-picture issues like the nature of human resilience, the importance of community, and the power of storytelling to sustain humanity and salvage culture, “The Simpsons” – TV’s longest-running sitcom – serves as its source material, which adds a delicious, head-shaking absurdity to the entire affair.

It is more than appropriate that “Mr. Burns” is being performed by the CPT — whose mission is to raise consciousness through adventurous new work — in its dilapidated Gordon Square Theatre space, where Wes Caulkin’s bare-bones set and dramatic lighting make it easy to imagine the apocalypse.

At the helm is Matthew Wright, whose brilliant direction kick-started CPT’s inventive and hilarious production of “Spirits to Enforce” not long ago.

The first act of “Mr. Burns” takes place in the immediate aftermath of a global apocalyptic event, as a group of worn and weary strangers gather around a campfire. To distract each other from the recent calamity and help stave off the gloom, they collectively recount classic tales, settling on — of all things — the second episode of the fifth season of “The Simpsons,” called “Cape Feare.”

In the second act, seven years later, the survivors are a touring theatrical troupe and the keepers of our culture. They barter for goods by recreating, re-enacting and embellishing memories of the sacred stories of episodic television, with commercials, and performing a hilarious medley of tunes by Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin, Kanye West, Beyoncé and others, set to Holly Handman-Lopez’s fun choreography. By doing so, they keep the pilot light of civilization burning in this dark, post-electric world, even though stories have now become monetized and the memories they share are grounded in painful nostalgia.

By the final act, 75 years into the future, “The Simpsons” is the stuff of cultural mythology. The meaning of the show’s stories is profoundly allegorical and the characters’ status has been raised from lovable archetype to iconic hero.

Staged as a pompous Gilbert and Sullivan musical pageant a la “The Mikado,” with a score by Michael Friedman (“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”), the entire “Cape Feare” episode is performed. In it, a young Bart Simpson (a wonderful Nicole Sumlin), his father Homer (a spot-on Trey Gilpin), mother Marge (Beth Woods) and sister Lisa (Abigail Anika Svigelj) are stalked by the murderous Sideshow Bob/Mr. Burns (Evan Thompson) and his henchmen Itchy (Cathleen O’Malley) and Scratchy (Tim Keo).

All this, with the addition of Megan Elk, performing operatically in classical Japanese Noh style, is done in eerie Simpsons-inspired masks and costuming, designed by Chialla Geib-Fenske and Inda Blatch-Gelb, and accompanied by the haunting rhythms of musicians Brad Wyner and Ryan McDermott.

Some degree of Simpsons literacy, a working knowledge of the 1991 Martin Scorsese film “Cape Fear” on which the Simpsons episode is based, and a passing familiarity with contemporary pop music are certainly pluses when watching this show, if not required.

What is required is stamina, for this clever play is given a rather plodding production.

Hindered by voices that often fail to reach beyond the sixth row of seating in this cavernous theater, it is hard to pick up on many of the play’s clever references, access its layers of serious intention, or feel engaged in the witty exchanges between members of this talented troupe. Too much of the intrigue and momentum generated in Act 1 dissipates during a leaden and occasionally clumsy Act 2 and drags to a conclusion in an Act 3 that seems to go on forever.

Midway through, when the touring theater troupe is working on the staging of “Cape Feare,” they discuss amping up the realism. “Meaningless entertainment,” someone suggests, “is actually really hard.” So, apparently, is doing meaningful entertainment in the guise of something meaningless. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play”

WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 5

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 21, 2016.

Lead image: From left, Beth Wood, Nicole Sumlin, Abigail Anika Smigelj, Trey Gilpin PHOTO | Steve Wagner