Br’er Cotton, and more specifically the honor of playing Ruffrino, has had profound effects on me as an artist and a person. More than anything else, the experience has made me fearful for the minds and hearts of America’s youth. Whenever a national tragedy occurs, whether it be mass shootings in Las Vegas, white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, or racial hate crimes in Charleston, it is plastered all over social media in ways that have never before provided more access. Nowadays, witnessing death is as easy as clicking an app icon. Even I, as a 23-year-old, have incredible challenge watching and digesting these images, so what about our youth? If my little cousin can log into his Twitter account and see a boy that looks like him being gunned down for that exact reason, his looks, how does he handle it? When I was 14, I didn’t have the emotional or logical intelligence that comes naturally with maturity to turn my grief and frustration into positivity and process, so how can I expect our youth to? That makes Ruffrino’s actions, tantrums and emotions make so much more sense to me, and hopefully to the audience.
As well, this show has inspired me to put my all, as an artist and as a black man, into the character. Ruffrino is not an abnormal child. To my belief, he is simply vocal about the same emotions that most children his age are silent about. Ruffrino deserves to be heard and understood by every audience that sits in those Zephyr Theatre seats, and that can only be done properly by a full commitment to him, his story, and his passion. I want the audience to walk away understanding that notion: that boy isn’t strange or an exaggeration. This is how far we’ve come. If they walk out asking “why is a 14-year-old THAT angry?” then I will consider my job done.
In order for me to accurately participate in this play’s process, and correctly give justice to my character, I had to open doors that many black Americans keep closed, shut, and locked. When you first hear that a black man has died due to a racial injustice, you mourn. When another black man dies, you mourn deeper, as if you’ve lost a family member. When the 10th tragedy occurs, you ignore it, as you cannot take the pain any further. When the 11th happens, you act as if nothing has even happened, and so on. In order for me to feel the anger and pain that Ruffrino is harboring the entire play, I had to stop ignoring, and stop shutting these doors. I had to read and research the details and stories of all of these late black men, and deal with the emotions that came along with that. I would like for the audience to do the same. Let’s stop ignoring to save ourselves, and start confronting to save each other.