Reviewed – 12th March 2018
“Michael Ajao’s performance is astounding”
A 15 year old boy dreams of revolution, while his mother struggles to keep their family afloat in Theatre503’s production of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton. Tackling racism and poverty in contemporary America, it was shortlisted for both the Theatre503 Playwriting Award and the Relentless Award.
I don’t know where to start with this review, mainly because I am still trying to catch my breath. Br’er Cotton is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen in a very long time. Yes, it tackles some heavy duty themes – it has a very big point to make and it’s not shy about making it. But Chisholm is a writer that understands the best way to make an audience think, is firstly to make them feel. Instead of labouring its point, this play focuses on family – single mother Nadine struggling to support son Ruffrino and father Matthew – and what it means to belong. Their relationships are real – they banter, they bicker and they rile each other. It’s warm and most importantly it’s funny. You fall in love with these characters. Fundamentally these are people trying to live good lives in difficult circumstances. It’s the pull to do the right thing, even if they disagree on what that is, which ultimately defines this family, and which makes their situation all the more unjust.
Ruffrino is constantly undermined, told he doesn’t matter and shown that his life is disposable. With Grandfather Matthew seeming to accept his lot late in life, and mother Nadine hiding her aspirations, their efforts to reason and placate his growing resentment simply fuels the fire. Even his safe space, his world of video games where the zombies are much easier to deal with, gets infiltrated by Redneck_Swag. This is not about being exposed to one racist incident, this is about being trapped in a world where you are fundamentally treated as being inferior, as an outsider by birth. What does it mean to be a strong, proud man when that is your reality? That is the question Ruffrino struggles with. Michael Ajao’s performance is astounding; more than once I had to hold myself in my seat, because the feeling of frustration and entrapment is so palpable that you want to get up and comfort this kid. Ajao hits every beat of Ruffrino’s conflict with intelligence and naivety. His turmoil is heartbreaking as it builds to an ending that, while you see it coming, still knocks the air out of your lungs.
Kiza Deen’s Nadine is the back bone of the narrative, a woman whose pride extends to every floor she mops. Loving and supportive, Deen’s performance is equally impressive, injecting delicacy into a character that is defined by strength. Her relationship with Alexander Campbell’s police officer is beautifully understated, a contrast to the bold, brash friendship between Ruffrino and Caged_Bird99 (Ellie Turner). Trevor A Toussaint’s lovable curmudgeon Matthew takes on an equally poignant role, as the man whose age has made him ridiculous rather than respected. With Nadine trapped in the present, Ruffrino looks to the future, Toussaint grounds them both in the sense of what has been, or more accurately what has not changed. In terms of production values, this is Theatre503 at its finest. Jemima Robinson’s design is simple yet striking, incorporating both the past and present. Roy Alexander Weise’s direction is flawless. This is an exceptional piece of work. Br’er Cotton is yet another jewel in 503’s crown, proving yet again that they are the true home of new writing.
Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com
Photography by Helen Murray
Theatre503 until 31st March