Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton is compelling, odd, intriguing and a bit chilling. Not so much a call to revolution as a thoughtful, intelligent demonstration of the racial pressure cooker that seems to be escalating in these United States. Current debacles such as the melee at Ferguson and Trayvon Martin are evoked. As we might infer from the title, Chisholm begins with the imagery of Br’er Rabbit, a series of folktales from the Deep South, often considered an affront to our contemporary, more enlightened sensibilities. We might remember here that that these stories can be tracked all the way back to African stories of the trickster hare, who might use his wits (or even extreme measures) to prevail against slavery. Br’er Cotton begins with what we take to be a slave woman, who describes Br’er Cotton, who (instead of counting his blessings) resents living so close to heaven, when it’s still unreachable. Locked away from bliss, but able to watch others enjoy it.
Nadine (Stormi Demerson) is a middle-aged African American lady who works for a house cleaning franchise like Merry Maids. One of her clients is Officer (Clay Yocum) a friendly cop who gives her moral support. In her private time she studies to improve her lot, while caring for her teenage son Ruffrino, and father-in-law, Matthew. Ruffrino (Kyle Fox Douglas) contentious, unwieldy, and sometimes bearing a resemblance to Huey Newton, is enraged by the growing oppression he sees, all over the United States. He spends a great deal of time caught up in violent video games he plays with Caged Bird (Katie Tye) a teenage girl who writes poetry. Since they are friends in cyberspace, he doesn’t know she is white, and manages multiple sclerosis. Matthew (Dennis Raveneau) is wily and secretive. Like many elderly folks he seems to love poking at Nadine, giving her grief, and acting vaguely superior. None of these characters feel outlandish or implausible, though this family is sometimes visited by a small “chorus” dressed in rags, and planting cotton in the living room. Does the family not see the cotton, or are they too resigned to notice it?
A salient quality that struck me about Chisholm’s fantastical, ominous drama is balance. He carefully lays out the strategy of his narrative. Nadine makes good money cleaning houses, it’s not like her employer or clients degrade her, but its debatable whether she’s caving to a system that makes upward mobility so difficult for her to attain. Many teen boys are full of piss and vinegar, and we can hardly blame Ruffrino for the agitation he feels in the midst of America’s racial upheaval. We cannot ignore however, that he keeps partaking of provocative material, with no good way to process or resolve it. Chisholm adds to this the elements of the metaphoric, poetic and surreal, leading to a very sad and seemingly inevitable conclusion. He mixes a number of volatile and unnerving ingredients to create a cautionary allegory. A philosophical/political quandary. How long will it take before we can finally leave the cotton fields? The plantation?
Kitchen Dog Theater Presents Br’er Cotton, playing June 9th-July 1st, 2017. 2600 North Stemmons Fwy #180, Dallas, Texas 75207. (214) 953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org