Watching Br’er Cotton at Theatre503 is a powerful experience. This small theatre tucked away in Battersea is brilliantly used to give an intimate look on a family in Virginia and involve us in their struggles against racial oppression. The run is the play’s debut in the UK and is powerfully directed by Roy Alexander Weise, introducing us to the characters’ individual sources of anger which soon punch through the veneer of very well-delivered comedy.
The set creates a moving backdrop – black walls, inscribed with the names of victims of racially-motivated police shootings. They set the tone for the world of fear that young black people, particularly men, are born into. The constant state of trepidation emanates from fiery Ruffrino, played powerfully by Michael Ajao as he voices that ‘Black kids, that look just like me, are getting shot down’. This is complemented hauntingly by the cotton plants which appear, projected onto the walls as another reminder of the oppressive legacy of slavery in the Southern States. These cotton plants begin to take over the stage as Ruffrino, attempting to ‘start the revolution’ becomes more desperate to break free of the history of oppression and prejudice that his family seem unable to escape.
He inherits this claustrophobic anguish from his mother Nadine, who ‘cleans some white man’s house’, just like her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother… did before her. She is studying to be a neo-natal nurse to escape the legacy that has been imposed on her family’s female line as women of colour. Kiza Deen brings beautiful nuance to this role as a mother who must cover her desperation in order to care for her son and father, only allowing herself to expose it to a Virginia State police officer – a complete stranger and, ironically, the kind of man her son most fears. Alexander Campbell executes this blunderingly awkward, but inherently good-natured character perfectly. Trevor A Toussaint, who plays Matthew, Ruffrino’s grandfather, provides a comical contrast to Nadine and Ruffrino’s desperate desire to break their moulds. With bits of cotton stuck in his beard, he has already been swallowed up by the ‘rut’ he feels his family is stuck in, but still harbours a hope that Ruffrino’s passion for change will get the family out of it.
These three generations of anguish showcase the seriously destructive nature of prejudice and the anger it perpetuates among its victims. This is cleverly exposed by Ruffrino’s escape into the world of video games – killing the zombies that represent the apathetic white population, unresponsive to the killings of black people which go unpunished. He voices his unabating anger to Caged_Bird99, poignantly portrayed by Ellie Turner. This online dimension is recreated simply and effectively by projection. Ruffrino’s dependence on this platform where he isn’t defined by his skin colour becomes abundantly clear when he is called a ‘f***ing n****er’ by another player. He rages at being characterised and degraded by that one word which others use to confine him.
One moment in particular stuck with me as a white woman – the Officer walks onstage and Nadine’s immediate reaction is to say ‘Don’t shoot’ – a response which would never even occur to me simply because I’m free to believe the police are there to protect me. This moment encapsulates the performance’s moving insight into the inescapable fear imposed on people simply because of their skin colour.