The names are scrawled in white across the walls of the theatre: Eric Garner, Emmet Till, Sandra Bland. Innocent black men and women murdered in racially motivated attacks. Most are young men in their mid-teens. The vast majority died within the last 30 years. Aside from the sheer number of dead, the worst part is how few of their names we recognise.
This is the UK premier of Br’er Cotton from US playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. It follows Ruffrino (Michael Ajao), a 14-year-old black teenager growing up in Virginia who’s enraged by the number of young black men killed by the police.
Ajao plays Ruffrino with a blazing intensity, spitting out his words with a throaty snarl. His staring, furious eyes almost feel too much, but his performance is backed up by the eloquent rage of Chisholm’s words. Railing against an Internet troll, Ruffrino tells his friend, “Loser kids like him grow and kill black kids like us. And they get away with it. I wish I could just crack his head open and find the thing in his brain that makes him racist and pulverise it”.
The most unexpected thing about the play is its humour. The fact that the audience could laugh at all under the weight of such heavy themes is surprising, but in the performance I attended they were constantly guffawing.
Plenty of the supporting characters have comedic value. There’s Matthew (Trevor A Toussaint), Ruffrino’s rotund and verbose grandfather who wanders the house with his eyes closed in preparation for losing his sight. Then there’s Alexander Campbell’s unnamed police officer whose hapless but well-meaning interactions with Ruffrino’s mother Nadine (Kiza Deen) provide the play’s most touching comedy. Some scenes that receive laughs are clearly misjudged. When Nadine cowers in fear for her life on first seeing Campbell’s police officer, a heart-breaking moment somehow provokes titters.
There’s a magical realist element to the play too. Louise Rhoades-Brown eerie video design means a moonlit vision of the antebellum south continually floats to the surface of present day Virginia. Designer Jemima Robinson sadly didn’t have the resources to properly execute Chisholm’s conceit of Ruffrino’s house sinking into the ground and a cotton field growing in the kitchen. Her attempts to convey this with an earthquake sound effect and some shaky background video are not clear enough.
Chisholm makes some sophisticated points about growing up with the possibility of being killed for the colour of your skin. Ruffrino’s blanket hatred of white people is tempered with a realisation that a number of the characters are socially ostracised for different reasons, without papering over the unique torment of finding your feet as a young black man. It’s just a shame then that his poetic vision of the present sinking into the traumatic past couldn’t be replicated onstage.
Br’er Cotton is playing at Theatre 503 until 31 March
Photo: Helen Murray