Br’er Cotton is a Timely And Moving Production

Review by: Peter Foldy

Written over two years ago, it is uncanny when one of the characters in BR’ER COTTON, the new play making it’s Los Angeles premiere at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood, talks about police brutality in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s as if playwright, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm and the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble had a crystal ball and were able to see what was to come. But then Charlottesville is just one of many hot spots where racial tensions come to a boiling point.

Directed by Gregg T. Daniel, Br’er Cotton examines one African American family’s frustration as they try to cope with the rising tide of hatred that has enveloped the country. Set in a run down neighborhood in Lynchburg, Virginia, an area that was once the site of a thriving cotton mill, the story focuses on 14-year-old Ruffrino (Omete Anassi) who lives with his mother and grandfather in an old deteriorated house that seems to be sinking, much like their situation.

Mom, Nadine (Yvonne Huff Lee), cleans houses to support her family, and has done so for most of her life. Her other full time occupation is worrying about her young son. Ruffrino’s granddad, Matthew, (Christopher Carrington), tells the boy that they are a “stay out of it family.” They don’t get involved in conflict. It’s pretty clear that Matthew has given up the fight.

Ruffrino, meanwhile, is well aware of the ever increasing number of police killings of young black men and he is in constant conflict with his mother and grandfather because of their complacency. Though only 14, he views himself as a revolutionary. He incites riots at school and his on-line presence, as part of a violent video game group, brings out the haters who frequently call him the “N” word. It is only another gamer, a young girl who’s handle is Caged_Bird99 (Emmaline Jacott) who supports and encourages him.  Imagining Caged_Bird99 to be African American, Ruffrino is in for a surprise when he discovers her true profile.

His mom, Nadine, also gets a surprise when she discovers that the house she cleans is owned by a white cop. In an unexpected twist, the Officer, (Shawn Law) relates to the hardships Nadine has to endure and she welcomes his concern. Nadine clearly has no other shoulder to lean on.

Br’er Cotton is wrapped in a cloud of tension that never lets up. Mr. Chisholm is an accomplished writer and Omete Anassi, as Ruffrino, manages to infuse the play with a youthful energy that fuels the explosive debates, and the not-so-unexpected conclusion. The rest of the top-notch cast, particularly Yvonne Huff Lee, Christopher Carrington and Shawn Law, all deliver strong and committed performances.

Kudos to Gregg T. Daniel’s fine directing, David Mauer’s superb scenic design, Westley Charles Chew’s lighting, and David B. Marling’s sound design.

Br’er Cotton, at it’s core, is a human story filled with humility and love. It delivers a heart-wrenching, intimate glance into one black family’s struggle to navigate racial tragedy in these troubled times. Don’t miss it!

When: Br’er Cotton runs Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm through October 29, 2017 (no performance on Monday Oct 9th).

Where: Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046.

Tickets: $15 – $45. Reservation and information at www.lower-depth.com/on-stage and 323-960-7787.

Wheelchair access and ample street parking.

Photos: Ed Krieger

 

Pure Confidence Takes Us Back To A Complicated Chapter In America’s Past

Review by Peter Foldy

It’s perhaps a little known fact that prior to the Civil War, black jockeys dominated the sport of horse racing. Pure Confidence by Carlyle Brown explores that world in Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s West Coast Premiere of a powerful and multi layered tale that explores the complicated relationship between master and slave.

Simon Cato (Armond Edward Dorsey) is a cocky, confident and most winning jockey owned by two children who have inherited him. Through their lawyer, they lease Simon to Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salyers) — a man Simon rides and wins for. The colonel’s horse is also the title of this play; Pure Confidence.

Simon and the colonel have an understanding, a friendship of sorts, and the colonel and his wife begin to think of their jockey and rented slave as a distant family member. Simon begs the colonel to buy him from the children so that he in turn can buy his own freedom with money he hopes to win by racing.

The colonel’s wife, Mattie (Deborah Puette) helps Simon put his plan in motion and even allows the Simon to buy her “girl,” Caroline (Tamarra Graham) on the condition that Simon marry her. These are forward thinking, modern minded people who are certainly out of step in their class conscious, racist world.

The first act sees Simon achieve his dream. He gets his freedom, but by the second act Simon’s fortunes have changed. Injured in a racing accident, he has suffered permanent damage that prevents him from riding and now works as a bellboy for an abusive, racist hotel clerk (Eamon Hunt). His marriage to Caroline, though caring on many levels has also turned abusive. Simon vents his anger by hitting his wife.

When a newspaper reporter (Dylan John Seaton) tracks Simon 15 years later so that he can write a story about the once great jockey, we learn that it was Colonel Johnson and his wife who hired the writer to locate their former jockey.

At a touching, heart-felt reunion, these two couples, one white and powerful, the other black and struggling, try to rekindle their prior relationship in the new age of Reconstruction, but they are thwarted by the social climate, ultimately having to acknowledge that it is not a level playing field, and a legitimate friendship between them is never to be.

Staged in a black box at the Sacred Fools Theatre, this production is most impressive.  Director, Marya Mazor has crafted a poignant piece that feels as real as it is disturbing.

The set design by Tom Buderwitz and clever use of film and photo projections from Nicholas Santiago help give Pure Confidence a slick, almost off-Broadway feel. Kudos to Mylette Nora for her costume design that looks and feels so authentic. But it is the acting that makes this play well worth seeing. Armond Edward Dorsey is exceptional as the ambitious Simon. William Salyers ably unfolds Colonel’s mindset, letting us see the complexities of his character.

Tamarra Graham asCaroline” is both sensitive and fragile, but strong when she needs to be, while Deborah Puette as the colonel’s wife convincingly portrays a modern thinking woman from a troubled time.

The rest of the cast, Eamon Hunt and Dylan John Seaton are both solid in their respective roles.

Pure Confidence is a thought provoking drama that compels as it takes us back to an ugly chapter in America’s past. Its message is not only powerful – it may also move you to tears.

Where: Sacred Fools
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Schedule: 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3pm Sundays
Closing: April 30, 2017

For reservations call (323) 960-7745 or online at www.lower-depth.com/on-stage

Tickets: $25 – $34

Production photos by: Ed Krieger

 

Totalitarian “Disconnection” Rules at the Beverly Hills Playhouse

Review by Peter Foldy

Launching their 2015 season after a successful, award winning year in 2014, the Skylight Theatre Company has opened with a thought-provoking drama by Allen Barton called DISCONNECTION.  Based in part on the playwright’s own personal experiences with Scientology, the play is a powerful indictment of contemporary religious intrusion into personal lives and is a production that should not be missed.

As the story unfolds,Diconnection-Poster “Landon” (Jay Huguley)  is a successful lawyer who is depressed after the death of his wife four years earlier, a death he is responsible for.  He visits “Michel” (Dennis Nollette), an elderly piano teacher, thinking that by sharpening his music skills he may be able to find some peace of mind.  Both men are members of a powerful Church that pays no taxes and uses fear, threats of violence and an implied moral authority to restrict freedom of speech, and even more damagingly, forces it’s members to disassociate with friends and family who are deemed to be “suppressive.”

Landon’s daughter, “Tess” (Carter Scott) also a church member, has not been allowed to see or speak to her father since the deadly accident.  Tess has become a high ranking staff member who reports directly to the Church’s young and volatile “Chairman,” (Everette Wallin).  When Tess and her husband, “Nick,” (Luke Cook) another high up staff member in the organization discover that Tess is pregnant, she informs Nick that she is leaving the Church.  Children it seems are a distraction and are not allowed amongst the staff.

Tess’ husband soon reveals himself to be more loyal to the Chairman than he is to his pregnant wife.  He tries to convince Tess to have an abortion but she refused and before long faces the wrath of the Chairman as he rants and threatens to end her marriage to Nick and destroy Tess in the process.

We also meet “Oldman” (Robert L. Hughes) the DIS_0972founder of this dogmatic religion that uses a mix of science fiction, among other things, as it’s basis in fact.  Now in hiding and reflecting back on his life, Oldman is particularly unhappy about the fact that his Church is now in the hands of a mere ‘boy’ as Oldman refers to the Chairman.  His original intentions, he tells us, were well meaning, but his vision took a wrong turn and Oldman now feels guilt and some regret over the wrongs he has committed along the way.

Director, Joel Polis ably guides his highly talented cast.  Carter Scott, making her first professional theater appearance is exceptional as “Tess.”   It is hard not to identify with her plight. Luke Cook is perfect as her  weasly, brainwashed, robotic husband, “Nick,” who uses his real Australian accent in this production.  Whether intended or not, it subtly indicates the international reach of the Church of which “Nick” is a devoted member.

Robert L. Hughes finds a nice balance between dictator and prophet with his monologue as “Oldman” and EveretteDIS_0721 Wallin as “Chairman” is frightening in the role of the violent, crazy as a fox ‘boy’ now in firm control of the movement.

Jay Huguley as “Landon” and Dennis Nollette as “Michel” are also impressive in their respective roles.

Jeff McLaughlin’s set and lighting design and Peter Bayne’s sound design were effective in bringing the production to life.

It should also be mentioned that all the piano playing in the piece were performed (and pre-recorded) by playwright, Allen Barton.

Barton needs to be commended for so ably telling this disturbing and pertinent story.  In this current age where dogma has taken a hold of many impressionable minds, it is important to get a glimpse at the inner workings of organizations such as the Church in order to learn about their their fear based modus operandi, not to mention the life-long damage they inflict on individuals who dare to defy them.

As a final statement to the audience, Carter Scott’s “Tess” reminds us not to be smug and believe that only stupid people fall prey to ill conceived groups and religions.  In a moment of weakness, she tell us, we are all susceptible.

Where: Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robinson Blvd. Beverly Hills

When: 8:30 pm Fridays, 8:00 pm Saturdays and 7:00 pm on Sundays.

Closing: March 1, 2015.  (No performance Feb 1, or March 1).

For reservations call: 213-761-7061, or book online  HERE

Photos by Ed Krieger