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.
“Heretic Productions should be warmly congratulated for giving an opportunity to three relatively new women’s voices that may well otherwise have remained unheard”
Last year Heretic Productions announced a rare opportunity for writers from all backgrounds to see their work published and fully produced on the main stage at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. The rules were specific in that the work must not have previously been performed professionally, have a running time of between 15 and 45 minutes, be a monologue and be performed in English.
A nationwide search opened in May 2017 which received over one thousand submissions. A shortlist of nine was then given to a panel and from these, three works were chosen to be produced. Those are now presented collectively as Heretic Voices and are Woman Caught Unaware by Annie Fox, Dean McBride by Sonya Hale and A Hundred Words for Snow by Tatty Hennessy.
This was my first visit to The Arcola Theatre which is housed in a converted paint factory and I was impressed with the design and feel of this vibrant venue. On entering the main theatre there is a basic set of a white square on the floor and each of the plays makes full advantage of the minimalist design. Seating is on three sides and the audience close to the action. The evening begins with all three actors entering before two depart to leave only seasoned actor Amanda Boxer on stage and we are about to experience Woman Caught Unaware.
This is about Mary, a sixty something professor that many graduates will identify with, who discovers there is a photograph of her that has gone online. It is the story of an older woman being photographed without her permission, her being naked in a changing room. The image is shared and she is mocked online. The monologue allows her to tell her side of the story without interruption during which we learn more about body shaming and the emotions that kind of humiliation brings.
It is a challenging role for an older woman which, in the main, Boxer takes in her stride. There are a couple of moments of slight hesitation in her delivery but given this was only the second performance it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the performance. It is funny, moving and thought provoking.
Next on was Ted Reilly, many will know him as Johnny Carter from Eastenders, who plays Boy in Dean McBride. This is a story of a boy growing up on a Croydon council estate and sees part of his life from his 10 and 16 year old points of view. It is a vivid story of loss, deprivation, suffering and redemption through love. He struggles through life before finding his way back to happiness.
Reilly uses the stage floor well and has a strong physicality about his performance. Some of the language is both ‘strong’ and ‘street’ and the writing takes the audience on a journey to a place many would not want to go. Disappointingly Reilly had to refer to the printed script in the last few minutes and hopefully this will not be the case in future.
Following a short break it was the turn of Lauren Samuels who gave an outstanding performance in A Hundred Words for Snow. Brilliantly written and expertly acted it is a story of a teenage girl who runs away from home with her father’s ashes to visit the North Pole. It looks at the complexities, joys and difficulties of being a teenage girl. Samuels appears fresh from her run in Romantics Anonymous at The Globe, which finished on Saturday. She is a consummate professional and was quite incredible as Rory. The audience reaction at the end was a fitting tribute to her 5 star performance.
In conclusion each performance is well performed and directed with effective yet minimal set, lighting and sound support. Heretic Productions should be warmly congratulated for giving an opportunity to three relatively new women’s voices that may well otherwise have remained unheard.