Rage is a useful emotion to display on stage, particularly when that rage is in the service of a genuine and demonstrable injustice. Based on that reasoning, Br'er Cotton by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, should be a vigorous exploration of the emotions fueling the Black Lives Matter movement. God knows there's enough injustice there to fuel an army of enraged plays.
Trouble is Chisholm's script, which reaches for some comparison to the Uncle Remus stories about Br'er Rabbit, is obvious and banal when it should be inventive. And it wears its anger in ways that fail to ignite any new perspectives or energize the audience. The perfunctory direction by Jennifer L. Nelson doesn't help the situation.
This production, part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, doesn't come close to reaching the heights of two other local production on the topic of race: Neighbors by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Convergence-Continuum Theater, and Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God adapted by Lisa Codrington at Karamu House.
Chisholm's story is set predominantly in the modern-day home of an African-American family where three generations share their modest digs. Old man Matthew (Peter Lawson Jones) pads around the kitchen in his robe, making sly, occasionally amusing asides to his daughter Nadine and grandson Ruffrino. Nadine (Samantha V. Richards) works as a cleaning lady in white people's homes, to get by. And Ruffrino (Joshua McElroy) is a 14-year-old simmering with contempt for the white police and racists that keep killing black men without being held accountable.
Those are three fine outlines, as long as they're filled in with characters that come alive on stage. Instead, they are each trotted out as two-dimensional avatars of certain positions on the racial-political spectrum, and there they stay.
Not only that, many of the words put in the mouths of these characters feel like they've been xeroxed from activist sites on the internet. When Ruffrino says he's rebelling against "the oppressive majority opinion that 'other' means 'less than,'" he's not talking like an angry young teen but a grad student at Columbia.
In addition, the script borrows some old chestnuts and piles them onto this lukewarm heap of grievance. More than once, Ruffrino references the fact that "this revolution will be televised," coming in a neat 48 years after Gil Scott-Heron's lyric first was sung. And Matthew even trots out the line "old men are like a box of chocolates" without even bothering to put a new spin on that very tired Forrest Gump cliche. (It's not a good sign when audience members call out the punch line before the character does.)
Two other characters are pulled in to attempt to give the story more dimension, but each fails in different ways. Nadine is cleaning the house of a white cop (Beau Reinker) and they start to talk. But it turns out the cop is Mr. Rogers in a blue uniform. He doesn't even like to speak loudly and dislikes guns. It would be hard to create a more unbelievable character unless you dressed him in a marshmallow suit carrying a peace daisy.
Sure, folktales often have simple characters and didactic plots. But they also have charm and engaging characters, which this play lacks.
When Ruffrino isn't going off on obvious and repetitious rants ("They kill kids like us and get away with it!"), he's playing a video game called Diaspora, which sets players against redneck villains who celebrate their victories by throwing n-word f-bombs all over the place. This is where the playwright's rage really shows, but it's a cop-out since all that fury is confined to a game scenario. Want your rage to land with power? Try having it affect fully developed characters that have something more than a game score at stake.
Ruffrino bonds with another player called Caged Bird99 (Sara Bogomolny). They hit it off until Ruffrino learns that the girl on the other end of their imaginary AR-15s is white. And he can't see it, but she's also crippled by cerebral palsy. A possible interesting subtext about how those with handicaps can live fully actualized lives through online games is never explored. Instead, the playwright falls back again on the obvious, settling for a comment about judging people by sight alone.
And speaking of settling, while all this is going on, the family house on old plantation acreage is sinking into the ground, and being overtaken by cotton plants that crawl up the walls, thanks to T. Paul Lowry's projections. These cotton intruders even push through the floorboards. This stage effect is in serious running for the Most Overdone Stage Metaphor of 2018, so place your bets now.
Instead of relying on other's words — Chisholm often regales us with familiar quotes by Maya Angelou, Gandhi, etc. — he should work on developing his own voice. And learn how to vent his justifiable rage through characters who are more than hand puppets spouting received wisdom. In an online interview, Chisholm has said he wants to "write plays that will become irrelevant." We know what he means, but in Br'er Cotton he has unwittingly achieved irrelevancy in another way entirely.