by Darlene Donloe
Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s latest play, Br’er Cotton, is an uncomfortable reminder of the state of race in America today.
The show, now playing at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood, takes place in Lynchburg, Virginia and centers on a 14-year-old-boy who is growing increasingly enraged about race-related issues going on in the world; so much so that it threatens to overwhelm him, especially when it comes to the recent killings of young black men who happen to look like him. While trying to find outlets for his anger, he becomes more at odds with his mother and grandfather who, due to their generational differences, have dissimilar views. All of this is happening while the family home is sinking into a cotton field, literally and metaphorically.
The play, which raises tough questions, is timely, particularly since America is going through what U.S. News calls “a big race problem.” In a report published in March 2016, the venerable news outlet wrote: “The Civil War ended nearly 151 years ago, but the battle between the races rages on.”
It went on to say, “When young, black teenage men are shot and killed by white police officers and trigger extraordinarily intense social commentary about racial tension in communities like Ferguson, Missouri, it means we haven’t solved the equation yet.”
In 2014, a young black man named Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. Brown was only eighteen years old.
Chisholm went to the same high school as Brown, albeit at different times. After Brown’s untimely and violent death, Chrishom couldn’t display his anger in Ferguson during the uprising — he was in Washington, D.C. at the time. Instead, he poured his rage into his writing.
At 33, this impressive St. Louis, Mo. native, is already racking up some exciting stats. He was named a “person to watch” by American Theatre Magazine. He went to the University of Missouri for undergrad and attended Catholic University of America for grad school. He also made Variety’s list of talent for the “future of film, media and entertainment.” A year ago Chisholm, who is recently engaged, moved to Harlem to attend Julliard for playwriting, where he is also a member of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.
I recently interviewed Chisholm about the National New Play Network Rolling World premiere of Br’er Cotton, and about being a black man in America.
@THISSTAGE: Why did you write this play?
CHISOLM: The play has a weird journey. I’d start and stop. It all started in Lynchburg at the End Station Theatre Company that operates out of Virginia. I had been going there during the summer to write.
It started as a ‘bake off’. You pull elements out of a hat. I pulled out a kitchen sink and the Tower of Babel. I remember those because they still live in the play. I started writing the play – I had the final image in my mind – so I started writing something that would get me to the ending that I saw.
@THISSTAGE: Was that it?
CHISOLM: No, then I put it away and I worked on other things. I was in grad school at the time. Later that summer the riots in Ferguson happened. Mike Brown went to the same high school I went to. I was in D.C. at the time. I was frustrated that I wasn’t there. It was an opportunity to help people heal and discuss. I wanted to be around my people. I would have been marching and been active. I wanted to be with my family – who I thought needed me. That anger I had. I started working on the play again. There was a lot of frustration from not being able to do anything. I wrote the play for a workshop in grad school and then it became my thesis play. I continued to work on it for the next year for the school’s production of it.
@THISSTAGE: This play is timely given the tense climate in America. How does Black Lives Matter play into this show? Are you a fan of Black Lives Matter?
CHISOLM: I’m a fan of anybody who is doing the work and advocating. I may not always agree with some of their methods, but overall I’m for it. Black Lives Matter isn’t in the show as an organization, but the lead talks about it in the show. It’s a part of his vocabulary. But it doesn’t factor into the show as an organization.
@THISSTAGE: Does your main character Ruffrino’s rage express some of your personal feelings?
CHISOLM: Yeah, a lot of it. I’m contending with ugly thoughts I had about it and wanting to lash out. I funneled a lot of anger into that character.
@THISSTAGE: Have you personally ever had an altercation with the police? Ever experienced racial injustice?
CHISOLM: We’ve all had run ins with the police. When you look back at it, in retrospect you wonder how your race affected the situation. I was disrespected. There was an assumption that was made. I’m fortunate – there have only been microaggressions, no overt aggressions. They’ve been subtle and cumulative.
@THISSTAGE: The black man and the police. What does it mean to be a black man in America? You are literally living while black!
CHISOLM: I think it’s just being aware. It’s a constant awareness. It’s never being able to let your guard down. You find different levels of comfort. I think being a black man now is being aware of those things and finding a balance of how much you care about that. As I’m working and navigating the world, I’m more aware of the system in play and how I can subvert those things or change them. I stay in a state of constant awareness.
@THISSTAGE: As a black man, on a daily basis are you concerned about your well-being and safety?
CHISOLM: I think that’s the extreme version of it. I don’t live that way. I can move through space, but then I’m always reminded somehow that there is a threat. It’s not always fear either – it’s looking at a situation and seeing how the powers that be are affecting it. How can I change that dynamic? How do I function with the given circumstances?
@THISSTAGE: Do you trust cops?
CHISOLM: No, not really. That’s sad to say.
@THISSTAGE: You don’t like cops, but in the case of an emergency – would you call them?
CHISOLM: Yeah, I would call the cops, but there is still that awareness that they are a cop. At the end of the day you can only trust so much. People are harmed even where they’re in the right.
@THISSTAGE: What is meant by the home sinking? Is it a metaphor, or is it literal?
CHISOLM: The home is literally sinking. Kitchen sink was the ingredient, so I interpreted that literally. It’s also metaphorical. The fact that the family is blind is one way that the kitchen sinking speaks to the play. I think I’d be interested in what you see in that metaphor – sinking and being stuck.
@THISSTAGE: Three generations have three different views in the play. What message are you trying to convey?
CHISOLM: I’m trying to offer a perspective, actually three different perspectives. My plays come from a place of ambivalence. I like to let my different opinions converse with each other. The root of all my plays is that I have contradictory thoughts about a subject. The three characters in the play represent three perspectives – past, present, and the future. Each of the perspectives embodies a different line of thought that I have. I want people to consider the alternative.
@THISSTAGE: Why was Gregg T. Daniel the best one to direct this show in Los Angeles?
CHISOLM: He had the foresight to want to direct the show. I met him and he said he was interested in directing the play. Gregg came to see the show in Dallas. We had a good meeting that morning. He was thinking about it in a different way. We were paired together through circumstance. He was interested in directing and producing. His resume is off the chain. I couldn’t have a better person usher me into Los Angeles theater.
@THISSTAGE: What are your thoughts about Los Angeles theater?
CHISOLM: I haven’t seen any of it. My impression is that it’s on par with everywhere else. Everybody is committed and excited about the work.
@THISSTAGE: To date you have written five plays – all of them seem to be very deep except Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies. Any plans for a straight-out comedy?
CHISOLM: I actually didn’t realize the play was a comedy while writing it. The theater in Washington D.C. called it a comedy and I got upset about it. I thought it was dismissive. I was too in it to see that. All of my plays are kind of humorous. Some are more comedic than others. Life is funny until it’s not.
@THISSTAGE: Do you adhere to “write what you know?”
CHISOLM: I think I am writing for who I know. That’s my objective as a playwright. I write stories for black folks that are important for them to hear. I’ll take up a hobby or research it if it contributes to the story I’m trying to tell. The heart of the story is for my folks.
@THISSTAGE: Tell me about your writing process.
CHISOLM: I do a lot of thinking. I write stuff down. I write bits of a conversation in a little book. I end up doing a really rough draft by hand. I collect little notes here and there and then I have to sit down and write. I used to be a night writer, but New York has thrown that off. Now I write when I find peace. I need solitude because I do a lot of walking around and I do a lot of hand gestures. I gotta get the rhythm into my body. I talk about things out loud.
@THISSTAGE: How long did it take to write the show?
CHISOLM: It was in the first draft stage from June or July and then I finished it in January. I wrote the majority of it in a workshop. I had to bring in 10 pages a week, each week. That’s not a natural way to write a play.
@THISSTAGE: What’s a natural way to write a play?
CHISOLM: I don’t know what is natural to me anymore. Lately it’s been like I’m writing better at the last minute. If you give me time I won’t get anything done. If the deadline is two days away, I can do it.
@THISSTAGE: Is that how you learned to write at Juilliard?
CHISOLM: At Julliard we had to write three plays really quickly. When done I will see how long it actually takes. I want to know what it’s like to spend time with it.
Br’er Cotton, Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays through October 29 (no performance Monday, Oct 9); $15-$45; 323-960-7787, www.lower-depth.com/on-stage.