Theatre Review: Br’er Cotton, Theatre 503 ‘The Crisis of Black Masculinity’

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Ruffrino (Michael Ajao) is angry. He’s a 14-year old American Black boy coming of age in a world where his TV screens are either filled with the shooting of Black men and women on the streets of America, or filled with the shooting of anonymous characters in computer games that he immerses himself in. Whichever way he turns, there is violence and there is bloodshed.

And not that he has a relatable paternal figure to turn to either, for his father is in jail, leaving his mother, Nadine (Kiza Deen) to work tirelessly in menial jobs just to earn enough to pay bills and put food on the table for both him and her father, Matthew (Trevor A Toussaint) who ain’t interested in his grandson’s view of the world, laughing at his talk of revolutionary change.

Ruffrino feels misunderstood and frustrated by his mother’s and grandfather’s reluctance to engage with the anger on the streets as Black Lives Matter comes into being, and the family front room quickly becomes yet another battleground as Ruffrino and Nadine fight for the safety of what’s left of the family unit.

This is powerful, heady stuff. The play is an adrenalin ride of fury, racism, broken family units, and video games packaged up with a soaring soundtrack.

But all these themes of anger, historical injustice, Black Lives Matter, the extra-judicial killings of Black men and women by the police, the violence of computer games, isolation and alienation, and the fragmented nuclear family, all weave together to crystallise the crisis of Black masculinity, and the profound issues young Black men have to wrestle with.

This is a hugely impressive play from Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm wrapped up in the smallest of stories. And its cast is tremendous, required as they are to not only flip from reality to fiction, and from today to the past at the drop of a hat, but to sing too. What a range of talent on display. They mix the spiritual with the political, and the drama with the humour, with ease.

Direction comes from the talented Roy Alexander Wiese and his vivid interpretation of this play’s themes and issues is completely on the mark, mixing technical innovation with powerful political presence.

The injustice of Black history rightfully haunts this play, from the names of the brutalised and murdered scratched into the walls – Emmett Till to Eric Garner, Rodney King to Tamir Rice – to the tree built entirely from rope, similar to that used by the KKK and Whites supremacists to hang Black people from branches. And in its emotive soundtrack too, from the gospel tunes of Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long to the ferocity of Kendrick’s DNA. This is the weight of Black history in the US writ large.

Yet these scenes of reality brilliantly merge with dramatisations of Ruffrino’s computer game addiction. They are his only outlet, yet perversely, and worryingly, this is a world where guns and death have no repercussions; you can just restart the game. A dangerous suggestion for a young man not yet capable of understanding the full repercussions of violence.

I loved this play. So much passion and politics in such an intimate drama. If I had one quibble though it would be in this play’s depiction of Black women.

You see, Ruffrino is battling with his mother to join up with the Black Lives Matter marches down the road in Charlottesville. Ruffrino wants to be part of the revolution; he wants to vent his anger at White people. His mother, though, won’t hear of it, fearful of her son’s safety, and concerned with the Black Panther material she keeps finding in his school bag.

Now, this is in many ways a truthful portrayal – young Black men are angry, and women are often cast as repairers in their own lives, holding together the pieces of a broken family. And few mothers would encourage their children to put themselves into the line of fire. However, in this instance, with BLM as a frame of reference, it’s a little sticky for me.

In the absence of alternative narratives and other plays focusing on the role of women in Black Lives Matter, you could be forgiven for thinking, on watching Br’er Cotton, that Black Lives Matter was built on the righteous anger of young Black men. However, that is obviously not the case. Black Lives Matter was not only created by women, Black women have been active campaigners and leaders in many other similar movements.

I appreciate that this play is focused on Black masculinity so from a narrative sense, it is understandable that a mother is cast as the reticent participant in this activism, only I can’t turn off my concern that this isn’t just misrepresentation of Black women’s activism, but marginalising, even erasing them, from the very creation of Black Lives Matter.

What I would give to see new shows from Black women on how the injustice of their lives has led them to take greater risks with their own safety, and how they’ve found it within them to become leaders in the fight against hate, prejudice and discrimination in spite (or because of ) all the responsibilities that society forces upon them.

Theatre 503, London, to 31 March 2018.
Tickets from £17 (concessions available).
All production images by Helen Murray.

Production Team:
Writer: Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm
Director: Roy Alexander Weise
Designer: Jemima Robinson
Lighting Designer: Amy Mae
Sound and Original Music Designer: Harry Johnson
Video Designer: Louise Rhoades-Brown
Movement Director: Vicki Manderson
Production Manager: Ed Borgnis
Assistant Director: Jordan John
Costume Supervisor: Hanne Talbot

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