Br’er Cotton

Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm
Jake Orr

Ruffrino (Michael Ajao) Credit: Helen Murray
Nadine (Kiza Deen) and Officer (Alexander Campbell) Credit: Helen Murray
Ruffrino (Michael Ajao) and Matthew (Trevor A Toussaint) Credit: Helen Murray

Black Lives Matter so why are so many names of black people killed by police written on the walls of the performance space in Theatre503?

And if you think maybe these people were offering some kind of threat to police, watch the upsetting video footage of just one of those names, Eric Garner, being dragged to the ground and killed by police in 2014 because he was suspected of selling a cigarette without a tax stamp.

The medical examiner ruled it a homicide but as usual there is no punishment of the killer. This is the kind of lethal racism that enrages the fourteen-year-old character Ruffrino (Michael Ajao) in Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s bleak, pessimistic play Br’er Cotton.

In one scene, he and another character reel off the names of black people killed by police and after each he angrily says the words, “no charge”.

Ruffrino has had enough.

Wearing his Black Panther style clothes, he packs his bag with a propane lighter and an axe and sets out to wake up the zombies of complacency with action on the streets. Except his mum Nadine (Kiza Deen) catches him en route and confiscates the equipment.

As far as he is concerned, his family are part of the problem.

His mother just wants to get on with her job as cleaner and pay the bills. His grandfather Matthew (Trevor A Toussaint) is content to watch soaps, mocks Ruffrino’s politics and claims that historically their family have always been content to just get by.

Lonely and frustrated, Ruffrino finds some comfort from an online friend, Caged_Bird99 (Ellie Turner), till he is shocked and annoyed to discover she is white.

He would be even more shocked to learn that his mother had found a very good friend in a gentle, self-deprecating, white policeman (Alexander Campbell) she cleans for.

The play’s most enjoyable moments are the conversations between this man and Nadine as they talk about their lives. He describes being a pacifist who stumbled into the role of policeman. She tells him about her secret ambition to be a neonatal nurse and her worries about her son.

Less believable is the grandfather who could easily have been the type of amusing figure to populate situation comedies of the late twentieth century. But the least satisfying character is the one-note Mr angry Ruffrino who seems only able to talk about hate and violence.

We know where the play is going.

There will be a clash between Ruffrino determined to hit back at the injustice of white society and his family's general acceptance of the way things are. This will pitch the unstable unsympathetic and undeveloped black youth against the play’s most sympathetic and developed character of the white policeman.

And if this is meant as an unsettling warning against the unsatisfactory binary responses to racism of either complacency or impulsive unreasoned fury, it also lends itself to a much older depiction of relations between black and white people.

It’s one of a world where the kindly white master is good to his servants who mostly look up to him except for that dangerous, deranged one who threatens to cruelly wreak havoc on a well-ordered society. It’s a cruel, untrue vision of the world many in the United States would still like to promote.

It’s not the way America is seen by Black Lives Matter activists, nor is it the way the world is regarded by those who are marching in London on 17 March as part of the United Nations International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination.

It shouldn’t be the model of the world portrayed even accidentally by this play.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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