When I Woke Up
I was first introduced to the play Br’er Cotton by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm at Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival as a reading in May of 2016. I thought the play was fantastic, visually stunning, very special and yet extremely challenging.
When Kitchen Dog Theater’s Co-Artistic Directors, Tina Parker and Chris Carlos, decided to produce Br’er Cotton as a Mainstage New Works Festival Play to be performed in June of 2017, I was thrilled and looked forward to seeing it in full production. But about a week after the announcement, Tina and Chris approached ME to direct Br’er Cotton. WELL, it had been many years since I directed a full-length play. I had directed in the past and LOVED it however, my acting career has been my “lucky charm” since I graduated college. With my schedule as a company member at two theatres, I could only squeeze in directing yearly staged readings to satisfy my love for directing.
So, at this time, not only was I facing two very challenging acting roles in plays, now they were asking me to direct a FULL STAGE PLAY that called for a kitchen floor to sink throughout the play and a tree to appear in the middle of the kitchen floor halfway through the play AND stay for the duration! I was overwhelmed by this and informed Tina and Chris, “I’ll get back with you.”
As we all know, since 2013, America has been inundated monthly, if not weekly, by many black men being shot and killed by police officers. It has been visible on social and news media. And still those officers have been exonerated on a large majority of these cases. But with respect to the play, June 2016 went by with me telling Tina and Chris I was still collating.
Then, in July 2016, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were both shot within a week of each other. There were peaceful protests being conducted all over the country; one took place on July 7 in Downtown Dallas. I was supposed to go but couldn’t make it. July 7, 2016 was a day that changed my life. That day, the peaceful protest for these unjust acts ended in terror and tragedy, right here in my hometown. As many, I felt upset, hurt, angry, and, most of all, helpless.
It was right then and there I decided this play Br’er Cotton, MUST be done and I must do it. The best way I could start to eliminate this helplessness was the only way I know how: through my art. This play speaks to so much of what is happening right this very minute and elicits much needed conversation and starts to heal the state of tragedy we are facing in our country. I forgot about the sinking kitchen floor and a tree, which grows in the kitchen. And never mind the acorns and a space bag that fall from that tree. I needed to do this play!
I have been silent for many years. I have never voiced my opinions about all the injustices that have been published in the media. But the Dallas Ambush woke me up. I could no longer be silent. SO, I told Chris and Tina that I would do this play!
So what does this mean to me? The most important thing about this play is the play itself. It is so well constructed. Br’er Cotton takes place in Lynchburg, Virginia on the former site of a cotton mill in an impoverished neighborhood. In the home lives a 14-year–old, militant boy that has been troubled by all the recent killings of young black men, like him. And he is determined to “wake up the zombies” by inciting riots at school and online. He lives with his grandfather and mother who are deeply affected by his rebellious activities. During it all, the family home literally sinks into the cotton field and only the son notices.
I have read a lot of plays about black men being killed by cops. But this play was different. It tells not only of perspective of racism in a black family, but also shows a generational view.
My father died when I was very young and I lived with my grandparents. So there were three generations in one household. It was during the ‘60’s when the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King Jr. were on the news daily. I remember the dinner-table the conversations. Even as a youngster, I found them fascinating. My grandparents were for peaceful protests and were great admirers of Martin Luther King Jr. But my uncle, who was closer to my age and like a brother, was for a more aggressive approach to racism like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. So, the generational images and relationships in the play hit very close to my life growing up.
What I wanted the audience to leave the theater thinking about was the racial chaos and divide that we are facing in this world today. This is not just an African American, Indian or Hispanic problem. And we cannot resolve it overnight or even within the millennial generational lifespan. But we MUST understand each other as individuals. If a person only associates with a certain race, they need to make a point to get to know someone of a different cultural background.
The message should affect white and black audience members the same; however, it won’t. At the end of the play the 14-year-old Black man shoots a white officer and most blacks feel vindicated as whites felt a largely guilt ridden.
In late April of this year, Jordan Edwards, a young boy in Balch Springs, Tx was shot and killed by a white officer in Balch Springs, Texas. He was the same age as Ruffrino, the young man in the play. This occurred not far from where I live and happened days before we opened the play. Yet again, I was reminded how vital this play is.
Yes, this is an African-American story. But it’s an African-American story about an American problem. And the only way to begin to heal and help is to talk to one another and learn, like I did, to no longer be silent.
Rhonda Boutte answers a few questions about the artistry in her activism. Click here to read about some of her designing/directing decisions and how she used some of those to convey certain themes.