Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
The Zephyr Theatre
Through October 29
The shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown in 2014 sparked a groundswell of angry protest in Ferguson, Missouri where the tragedy occurred. Captured on camera for the world to see, his killing spotlighted the endemic racism in that community and others like it across the United States. Even more tragically, Brown’s death, and the subsequent exoneration of the officer who shot him, turned out to be only one in a seemingly relentless series of incidents in which people of color, guilty of no crime whatsoever, met their end at the hands of hasty, ill-trained and/or just plain racist law enforcement officers.
Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm — at one time a student at the very high school Brown attended — was in Washington, D.C. when the demonstrations took place. The killing of Brown and others quickly became a prime element in an idea he had been developing — one that eventually evolved into Br’er Cotton. The play examines conflicts within three generations of an African-American family, as they react — or choose not to react — to racism in general and these hate crimes in particular. Directed by Gregg T. Daniel for Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, the play is a national rolling world premiere.
The three main characters are Ruffrino (Omette Anassi), an angry and politically aware 14-year old; his mother Nadine (Yvonne Huff Lee), who cleans houses to support them; and Nadine’s Dad Matthew (Christopher Carrington), a curmudgeonly senior whose reactionary ideas about race and acceptance of the status quo contrast sharply with those of his outraged news-literate grandson.
Some of Ruffrino’s rage gets absorbed into video games and in the bond he’s formed with another player (Emmaline Jacott), whom he knows by her online appellation, Caged Bird_99. Ruffrino feels close to Caged Bird_99, and confides in her — as she, a disabled poet, does in him. But the two have never met, and what Ruffino doesn’t realize is that she’s white.
The other white person in the mix is a police officer (Shawn Law) whom Nadine meets one day when he returns early while she’s cleaning his house. The antithesis of a brutal racist cop, this officer is a kind man who discovers Nadine pouring over nursing texts instead of doing chores. He does his best to assuage her panic at this discovery, and works through her paranoia to try and establish a friendship.
These characters and how they relate, along with the play’s currency (references to Charlottesville become part of the dialogue between Ruffrino and Matthew) provide a potentially solid foundation, although some of Nadine and Matthew’s opinions — at one point she claims to prefer cleaning houses to other occupations while Matthew pooh-poohs the rights of blacks to protest — seem either ill-thought out or too contrived to exacerbate the conflict.
The bigger problem, however, is Chisholm’s ambitious juxtaposition of naturalistic drama with magical realism and myth. For example, the play begins and ends by referencing a faux folklore character, a rebellious defiant “Br’er Cotton,” a symbol, perhaps of Ruffrino’s spirit. There’s also an extended scene in the middle that depicts the cotton fields of the pre-Civil War South, with the forbearers of this family singing and bonding as they go about their work. And the house this family lives in, on land which was once a cotton field, is supposed to be sinking into the earth — pulled downward, as I interpret it, by a history of oppression. The playwright seems to be seeking a broader richer canvas for his story, an ambition that commands respect. Even so, the end result arrives through some awkwardness and contrivance.
Some directorial adjustment is also in order. Of the three lead performers Carrington comes off best as the crotchety irascible grandad; he triggers laughter in the same way that Archie Bunker did in All in the Family, but the rhythms of his delivery are sitcom in the middle of a lyrical drama, and the contradiction grates. Lee starts out grounded, but later lapses into melodrama, while Anassi registers as too mature for a 14-year- old, even a precocious one, and in any case registers one-note throughout. Law’s officer is sympathetic, and the scenes between his character and Nadine are involving ones.
As the online avatars Dane Oliver and a very attractive Jasmine Wright (movement and fight choreography by Doug Oliphant) are enjoyable to watch. Scenic designer David Mauer’s discombobulated set (a challenge give the small stage) reflects the cleft elements of the script, but it’s ably augmented by video designer Yee Eun Nam discerning images.
The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; Sat.-Mon., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through October 29. www.lower-depth.com/on-stage and 323-960-7787. Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with an intermission.