Br’er Cotton review at Theatre503, London – ‘real visual flair’
Br’er Cotton has got all the right ingredients. A bold new voice in American playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, a timely subject, and a red-hot director in Roy Alexander Weise, whose extraordinary production of The Mountaintop was a highlight of 2016.
Something doesn’t quite click, though. Chisholm’s play, which tells the story of a broke, black family living in Lynchburg, Virginia, never settles on one mode of storytelling.
When white-bearded grandfather Matthew (jovial Trevor A Toussaint) grunts and grumbles, it veers towards kitchen-table comedy. When mother Nadine (an excoriating Kiza Deen) befriends a depressed cop on her cleaning rounds, it slides towards touching two-hander. And when teenage firebrand Ruffrino (a militant Michael Ajao) lets his frustrations out through online gaming, it surges with political rage.
Shadows – the ghosts of the family’s cotton-picking parents – flicker through the play, too, as do reverberations from nearby Black Lives Matter protests. There’s so much going on that the central theme – whether violence is the answer – feels overlooked and under-explored.
The five-strong cast are excellent, however, and Weise’s production cruises along on Jemima Robinson’s set, making good use of projections throughout. Cotton plants creep up walls scrawled with the names of black men shot dead by white policemen – a powerful touch.
Weise is an exciting director with scope and real visual flair, and in truth he feels constrained by the tiny Theatre503. He’s directing Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night at the National Theatre’s Dorfman in April – I can’t wait to see what he does on a bigger stage.