Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Br'er Cotton
Cleveland Public Theatre
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule

Peter Lawson Jones, Samantha V. Richards
and Joshua McElroy

Photo by Steve Wagner
It is a house on the edge of abject poverty. All of the furnishings are distressed hand-me-downs, including a sad refrigerator, small microwave oven, tiny TV, mismatched chairs with small table, and a duct-taped Xbox game. There is no stove or oven. This is the set for the Cleveland Public Theatre's production of Br'er Cotton directed by Jennifer L. Nelson.

The house is home to unwed mother Nadine Witherspoon (Samantha V. Richards), her 14-year-old son Ruffrino Witherspoon (Joshua McElroy), and father of Nadine and Ruffrino's grandfather Mathew Witherspoon (Peter Lawson Jones). Ruffrino's absent father is serving a 50-year sentence for an undisclosed crime.

The three survive paycheck to paycheck in a hand-to-mouth existence that at any time could fail, tossing them on the streets. Ruffrino is especially sensitive to his environment as he is dealing with his grandfather who constantly berates the young man's political views, dealing with the constant threat of violent death at the hands of the police and neighbors, dealing with "the zombies" at his high school, and dealing with a racist video player who hides behind a gamer tag in spite of his other gamer friend Caged_Bird99's (Sara Bogomolny) encouragement that everything will be fine.

Nadine is the main breadwinner working as a maid cleaning white people's houses. She works extra fast in order to take time out to study for college. Her dream is to become a pre-natal nurse, even though she had previously flunked out of college after only one semester. While taking a study break she is caught by the condo owner, a police officer (Beau Reinker) who shows sympathy toward her plight and encourages her to continue in her studies.

Mathew tries his best to keep his grandson on track. He is a retired millworker who gets a small pension. He is a world weary man who realizes that "nothing has changed before his life, during his life, nor is likely to change after his life." He has accepted the present situation as the price for being black. He is convinced that the Witherspoon family is renowned for their lack of accomplishment dating back to the Civil War when the last family member to show some spunk was executed by firing squad. He also has some secrets that he carefully guards.

Ruffrino's world begins to close in on him when in quick succession his grandfather passes, it is reported on the news that yet another police officer has been acquitted in the shooting of a young black male, he discovers that Caged_Bird99 is actually a white girl with cerebral palsy, his mother refuses to allow him to travel to Charlottesville to join in the riots, and his family and school refuse to join him in his revolution. His paranoia begins to manifest itself with his imagining that the house is slowly sinking into a cotton field, leading to a violent yet somewhat predictable ending.

There seems to be three sequences to this play: the grandfather segment, the slaves picking cotton fantasy segment, and the post-grandfather segment. In the first segment, it resembles more of a comedy sitcom as Nadine and Mathew verbally spar with Ruffrino as he tries in vain to get them to join his revolution. The second segment is confusing, as the fog machine was not up to enough power to lend a mysterious ethereal effect to the scene. The third segment follows the quick downward spiral of Ruffrino as all that he once held sacred has abandoned him.

Samantha V. Richards does an excellent turn as Nadine as she tries to balance a variety of worlds of mother/employee/student/daughter while holding her fragile family together. Peter Lawson Jones is tasked as well, trying to be both father and grandfather to a volatile teenager. Joshua McElroy is superb as a young man whose slow, inevitable decent into insanity is barely measurable yet striking in its portrayal. Sara Bogomolny as Caged_Bird99 is fine, but the repetitive poetry and glib description of her physical challenge is a weak part of the script. Beau Reinker is almost too nice as the police officer who wants to be everyone's friend.

Wes Calkin's set design is remarkable in its ingenuity, with cotton plants popping up in the most unusual places due to Ryan T. Patterson's special effects efforts. Benjamin Gantose's lighting sets the proper mood for each scene. Inda Blatch-Geib has come up with believable costuming for each of the characters, and the vital video design by T. Paul Lowry completes the show.

When you are able to look past the headlines of police violence and black on black crime, you begin to see the effects that these pressures have on the lives of real individuals. While this show offers no solutions, it does encourage further discussion, which may be lead to answers concerning this terrible modern urban problem.

Br'er Cotton, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere through the National New Play Network, runs through April 21, 2018, at The Cleveland Public Theatre's James Levin Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased online at or by phone by calling 216-631-2727.

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