Dallas — Imagine what directors and producers think when they first read seemingly impossible stage directions in a playwright’s script. Think Shakespeare’s infamous “exit, pursued by a bear” (The Winter’s Tale) or Peter Shaffer’s “they cross the Andes” (Royal Hunt of the Sun). Add to that list “the kitchen sinks a few inches,” and several stretches of dialogue later, “the kitchen sinks a few more inches.” Spoiler alert: The kitchen keeps sinking.
To be fair, this is forewarned at the beginning of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton, when he sets the scene of a house on a former cotton plantation in Lynchburg, Va., known as the City of Seven Hills. For this dwelling:
The eighth and forgotten, “Cotton Hill.”
The hill is taking back the house.
A cotton field grows in a kitchen.
The kitchen is sinking.
These are just a few of the design challenges in Chisholm’s devastating play, which was given a reading in Kitchen Dog Theater’s 2016 New Works Festival and makes its world premiere in KDT’s 2017 edition, part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere that will be followed by productions at Lower Depths Ensemble in Los Angeles later this year, and the Cleveland Public Theatre in 2018.
Kitchen Dog handles the sinking through John M. Flores’ sound design, in concert with Bob Lavallee’s scenic design, Aaron Johansen’s lighting, Jen J. Madison’s costumes and Cindy Godinez-Ernst’s props—plus, of course, Rhonda Boutté’s direction with actor Kyle Fox Douglas, playing 14-year-old central character Ruffrino. He’s the only person in the “right-right now!” (Chisholm’s words, with exclamation point) setting who is aware of the house’s foundational issues, which go way beyond matters of pier-and-beam.
Everyone in the play experiences some kind of shift. Not all are seismic, nor do they need to be.
Ruffrino lives with his mother Nadine Witherspoon (Stormi Demerson) and grandfather Matthew (Dennis Raveneau). He fancies himself a revolutionary ready to fight the power in regards to never-ending rash of murders of black men by (mostly) white cops, who are inevitably acquitted. One diversion is playing a video game called “Diaspora” with his favorite online gamer, Caged_Bird99 (Katy Tye), who like Ruffrino, finds solace in escaping the real world via gaming. H. Bart McGeehon’s video design in these scenes is spectacular.
There is a white cop in the narrative. He befriends Nadine when he comes home early to find her there, on her job working for a cleaning company called Lovely Maids. This character, played by Clay Yocum, comes into the Witherspoons' world in surprising, jolting ways—there’s no need to spoil the play’s twists.
Even though the cop’s character is simply called “Officer” in the script, he’s a fully rounded role, captured in a nuanced performance by Yocum. But here’s the thing—and this is absolutely mentioned in regards to the current Chicago controversy over the Sun-Times’ longtime theater critic and her review of Steppenwolf’s Pass Over (and other concerns long expressed by the Chicago theater community): A white cop in a story about the killings of black men doesn’t need to be rounded or nuanced. It’s perfectly fine for Caucasian law enforcement in works dealing with police brutality to be generalizations, an indictment of systemic racism. After all, characters of color and otherness have been painted in broad strokes for decades. Centuries.
But caricature is not what’s right for the story Chisholm is telling. The ending is one that falls in the category of predictability given plot points earlier in the play, but it’s still shocking and unexpected. Kind of like losing a loved one who’s been terminally ill or very sick for some time. The outcome might be expected—but can it ever truly be?
The black characters here, representing three eras of a family, define their generations. Matthew is of the group that is least willing to change and think about bigger pictures—and is dying off. Raveneau plays him with warmth. Nadine, who “comes from a long line of cleaning ladies,” desperately wants something better for her son. In Demerson’s performance, it’s evident that she not only wants Ruffrino to have a bright future via education that leads to upward mobility, and glimmers of that unspoken concern that every black parent has for the young men who are their sons and grandsons, knowing that the system is against them from the get-go. It’s apparent in the looks she gives him while he’s engaged in something else; in her willingness to physically fight him when it’s a matter of protecting him.
Douglas, a senior at Southern Methodist University, makes a strong professional stage debut as the young black man with the world full of roadblocks ahead of him. His biggest fear—other than the higher chances of being shot by law enforcement merely because he’s black and male—is being a “zombie,” those people sleepwalking through, well, everything.
To call the play timely goes without saying. In one scene, as Ruffrino wants to join a protest in nearby Charlottesville because of another acquittal, he rattles off similar cases in other cities. The play began development several years ago, but after this past week in America, Ruffrino might as well replace the scripted cities with Cincinnati, St. Paul and Tulsa, referencing the acquittals of the police offers who killed Sam DuBose, Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher.
It's Chisholm’s visual challenges that take this story beyond the timely and important to poetic. The metaphor that the house is sinking into the old cotton field—not to mention the haunting images of a chorus of field-working slaves (Jalen Clark, Gelacio Eric Gibson and Joneé Lewis) who appear in shadow and aid with the design concept, which is something Boutté added—won’t be forgotten by anyone who sees Br’er Cotton.
The play’s title is a reference to Br’er Rabbit and the Uncle Remus stories that found their way into the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which has never been released on video because of its racist portrayals of African-Americans. Chisholm includes a prologue and epilogue, in which Demerson, playing another unnamed character who is presumably linked by bloodline and experience to the descendent we see in Nadine, tells the story of Br’er Cotton while holding a swaddled baby. He doesn’t understand why heaven, which seems to be in reach of the folks on the top of the hill, feels unattainable to him. In the script, Chisholm titles the prologue “ars poetica,” meaning “the art of poetry,” sometimes taken to mean “art for art’s sake.” It doesn’t feel that way; rather a significant propeller of the storytelling.
As beautiful as these images are, on opening night (three weeks ago), the transitions were too slow and affected the overall momentum, but guesses are that it has improved as the production has had longer to work out the kinks. It will be interesting to see how subsequent NNPN productions tackle the design challenges of the sinking house.
Chisholm's ambitious mise-en-scène might make it into the Stage Direction Hall of Fame, but his content, ideas and language make him an important voice to watch in American theater.
» Kitchen Dog's 2017 New Works Festival also includes readings of new works. On Saturday, July 1, catch Kirk Lynn's The Animals at 1 p.m., and Jessica Moss' Cam Baby at 4 p.m.