Dallas — It’s time again for Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Play Festival, this year headlined by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton. Chisholm came to Kitchen Dog’s attention through the New Play Exchange, a rising online platform connecting playwrights with theatre companies across the U.S. “Kitchen Dog sent out a call through the website for the reading festival, New Works Fest,” Chisolm says. “I just submitted it through that.”
It was selected for a reading in the 2016 New Works Festival and now a full production as a rolling world premiere with the National New Play Network.
Chisholm is a rising playwright, having completed an MFA program at Catholic University of America recently, with numerous projects developed across the country. He is currently a student in the prestigious Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights program at the Juilliard School. After Kitchen Dog, the other NNPN productions of Br’er Cotton will be Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble (Los Angeles) in September and the Cleveland Public Theatre (Ohio) in March 2018. Another new work, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, premiered at the Mosaic Theatre in Washington, D.C., in January.
x Br'er Cotton is about a 14-year-old boy at odds with his mother and grandfather, and whose anger grows beyond containment while the family home literally sinks into the cotton field, although he's the only one who notices.
The image that sparked Br’er Cotton is something Chisholm would like to keep a secret for now, because it is the final moment of the play. “That was sort of the driving image, I wanted to write a play that came to that point,” he says. “I worked backwards from that final image.”
The writing process for Br’er Cotton started through a simple writing exercise at Endstation Theatre in Lynchburg, Virg. Chisholm attended at summer residency with this company where, from Chisholm’s perspective, “you kind of just hang out and write a new play.” One of the exercises they use at the residency is a “Bake Off,” where playwrights are given a series of ingredients that they must put into a new play. “One of the ingredients was Lynchburg and kitchen sink; The Tower of Babel was one. Just like these random things that brought this play together.” With these “ingredients,” Chisholm wrote the first few scenes during the residency and eventually Br’er Cotton became his thesis project for his MFA.
As Chisholm continued to work on the play, events in the U.S. concerning police brutality towards black men rose significantly. Chisholm used Br’er Cotton to channel his thoughts and feelings about these events, and it altered the initial direction of the play. Like many people, he didn’t know what to do but be angry after watching video after video and hearing story after story.
“I’m originally from St. Louis,” he says. “Mike Brown went to my high school and it really hit home…a lot of those feelings went into how the play course corrected and became a different thing.”
Chisholm notes that using Br’er Cotton as his MFA project helped him recognize the merits and challenges of his own work. “It was a really great experience to see where it landed and how things are being portrayed,” he says. “It was good to see what I had on the page.”
Now as the play is going through a rolling world premiere with professional actors, he’s making little changes along the way with each production.
Eventually, Chisholm would like to open his own theatre company, so he’s focusing on certain elements of producing with each theatre premiering Br’er Cotton. As a playwright, he acknowledges that he hasn’t been given many opportunities to experience other areas within theatre. So, he’s using this opportunity to learn about marketing, casting, production, and other elements with each company.
It’s noteworthy that Chisholm stumbled upon theatre almost by accident. He started his educational career as a visual artist and took creative writing courses because he loved language and “did not want to be responsible for facts.” He took so many short fiction courses that his advisors told him that he could no longer get credit for them. So he took a playwriting course on a whim, and it sparked something within him immediately. He discovered that theatre is a perfect merger between visual and language arts, and he found his new artistic home as a playwright.
For the Kitchen Dog Theater production of Br’er Cotton, Chisholm is eager to see what reactions occur with the final image of the play. He notes that it’s been met with some contention, but he is eager to see how it resonates in each city.
Chisholm will be at opening night on Friday, June 9. The production is directed by Rhonda Boutté, and the cast includes Stormi Demerson, Dennis Raveneau, Katy Tye, Clay Yocum, and current SMU theater undergrad Kyle Fox Douglas, who is making his professional debut.
» Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival also includes six staged readings of new works; as well as Playwrights Under Progress (PUP) Fest, which is co-produced by Junior Players and DISD, featuring readings of works by high school playwrights.
PUP Fest is at 1 and 4 p.m Saturday, June 10 at Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts, 2501 Flora St., Dallas.
The play readings are at the Trinity River Arts Center. The schedule is below; for more on these plays, with descriptions and directors, go here.
We Will Not Be Silent
by David Meyers
1 p.m. Saturday, June 17
Black Super Hero Magic Mama
by Inda Craig-Galván
4 p.m. Saturday, June 17
by Hope Villanueva
1 p.m. Saturday, June 24
by Elizabeth Doss
4 p.m. Saturday, June 24
by Kirk Lynn
1 p.m. Saturday, July 1
by Jessica Moss
4 p.m. Saturday, July 1
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.