An angry, rebellious African-American teen finds himself at loggerheads with his hard-working single mom, his tradition-bound granddad, and the racist world he confronts on a daily basis in Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Br’er Cotton, a dialog-provoking gripper of a play that I’d like even better if it stayed in the very real present instead of detouring into magical realism territory and the Civil War past.

Meet fourteen-year-old Ruffrino Witherspoon (Omete Anassi), so fed up with seeing white cops get off with killing young blacks that he’s got an “art project” planned for school today involving lighter fluid and an axe, that is until Nadine (Yvonne Huff Lee) discovers said paraphernalia in her son’s book bag and lays down the law.

No son of hers is going to end up like his daddy, the man whose fifty-years-to-life prison sentence condemned Nadine to a life of doing white people’s housework just like every woman in her family has done since her slave great-great-great-grandmother cleaned house for her white masters.

Gramps Matthew (Christopher Carrington) is no more sympathetic to Ruffrino’s plight than his daughter, lecturing his grandson that “Negroes these days want rules that don’t apply to them to apply to them, and if that ain’t fair, well a lot of things ain’t fair.”

And so Nadine heads off for another day of cleaning toilets, leaving Ruffrino to engage in violent virtual combat with online gaming friend Caged_Bird99 (Emmaline Jacott) as an anonymous fellow gamer spews out N-word-laced racial taunts.

What Ruffrino doesn’t know, and God help Nadine if he ever finds out, is that Mama’s about to start up an unlikely friendship with a divorced white cop (Shawn Law as Officer) who both understands and supports her efforts to make a better life for herself and her son, the only person in her life to do so.

As long as playwright Chisholm sticks to the volatile present and a quintet of characters that go beyond black-and-white stereotypes, Br’er Cotton works. Then the Witherspoon house begins to split apart, cotton plants start sprouting out of cupboards as a tree grows overnight in Nadine’s kitchen for reasons only Chisholm knows, and …

Add to that a Civil War-era flashback that ends Act One with a fizzle rather than a bang and this reviewer for one can’t help wishing that Chisholm had been less ambitious or artsy (take your pick of adjectives) in what is otherwise one humdinger of a play, the latest from Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and a National New Play Network Rolling Premiere.

Gregg T. Daniel’s dynamic, nuanced direction inspires one terrific performance after another from an all-around stellar cast.

Anassi once again proves himself a charismatic young star in the making, the divine Lee is heartbreakingly real as the best mom any boy could possibly wish for (and might someday learn to appreciate if given the chance), Carrington is a crusty delight as Grandpa Nathan, Law is so darned likeable as Officer that you can’t help rooting for more than friendship with Nadine, Jacott does touching work as a girl whose poems reveal her own frustrations with the world around her, though for different reasons than Ruffino’s, and Dane Oliver (masked beyond recognition) and Jasmine Wright (in a clingy Catwoman-ready black unitard) show off martial-arts-ready acrobatic gifts as a pair of sword-wielding Avatars.

David Mauer’s imaginative scenic design blends realism with whimsy, and Wendell C. Carmichael has designed some terrific character-fitting costumes with special snaps to the Avatars’ combat garb (though I could have done without all those cotton balls on Grandpa’s robe).

Wesley Charles Chew’s electrifying lighting, Yee Eun Nam’s stunning animated video game projections, David B. Marling’s dramatically pulsating sound design, and Michael Allen Angel’s potpourri of props are winners too as is Doug Oliphant’s supremely athletic movement and fight choreography and Chelsea Davis’s musical arrangements.

Br’er Cotton is produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners. Misha Riley, Theatre Planners, is assistant producer. Casting is by Raul Clayton Staggs.

Kristina Ann Hanna is assistant director. Jenine MacDonald is stage manager. Tracy Winters is dialect coach.

As current as today’s headlines, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s latest may not be entirely the play I would have wished for, but there is no denying the gut-punching power Br’er Cotton packs.

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Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 2, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger

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