If last year’s inaugural presentation of “On the Third Day” was a first chapter in the evolution of Vanguard Repertory Company, a fledgling theater group based at the new Windmill Arts Center in East Point, then consider its second undertaking with the current “Br’er Cotton” as Chapter 2.
In a series of scenes that begin with projected title cards — “Chapter 4: Nadine Cleans (Her Life Away),” “Chapter 8: Mourning,” “Chapter 13: The Festering” — Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s drama essentially continues a vital dialogue that started with the earlier play, involving racial unrest in modern-day America.
Vanguard Rep artistic director Matthew Kellen Burgos’ earnest and solid staging of “Third Day” similarly used a series of supertitled “movements” and “interludes” to tell a story about a black family trying to come to terms with and reach a consensus about the violent death of their son and brother, and their opposing opinions regarding the sentencing of his convicted killers.
By no means is Burgos’ production of “Br’er Cotton” a matter of same song or different verse, as much as it’s another thoughtfully conceived and stylishly designed variation on a dramatic theme for Vanguard. (The play was previously developed in rolling premieres at theaters in Dallas, Los Angeles and Cleveland as part of the National New Play Network.)
The aforementioned Nadine (sensitively portrayed by Beverlix Jean-Baptiste) is a single, middle-aged mother who juggles studying for nursing school with several jobs to make ends meet — including work as a “cleaning woman for white people,” to quote her feisty, disapproving old father (a warmhearted Daviorr Snipes), with whom she lives as a caregiver. When she reminds him that the family’s “stuck in a rut,” he simply urges her, “Un-rut us!”
Chisholm’s central character, though, is the other member of their household: Nadine’s rebellious teenage son, Ruffrino (the fine Lau’rie Roach), who can’t even play his favorite online video game without racism and bigotry rearing its ugly, offensive head. A self-professed “revolutionary,” he’s most infuriated by all the cases of unarmed black men being shot and killed by white policemen, and how rarely any criminal charges are ever filed against the officers.
The young kid tries to talk to his grandfather about systemic racism dating back to Civil War slavery (and beyond), about the futility of peaceful protests and silent vigils, and the importance of “waking up the zombies” and changing the world. But all he gets in response are cryptic hints about a “buried treasure” in the family’s past (or future), and a Witherspoon “curse” built on generations of unremarkable “minions,” not earthshaking revolutionaries. Life can be unfair, says his grandfather with a shrug, “That’s just the way things are.”
Burgos supplies ample atmosphere to a few flashbacks set in the cotton fields of the 1860s. Throughout the play, patches of cotton surround them on various parts of the stage, and with the start of every new chapter, a projected window of the home reveals a crop that grows increasingly rampant and threatening. Periodic sound effects ominously suggest that the family’s house (if not their whole world) could collapse at any moment.
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At times, “Br’er Cotton” doesn’t subtly foreshadow events so much as it blatantly telegraphs them: Nadine uncovers a hatchet and bottle of lighter fluid in her son’s backpack; we’re soon introduced to one of her housecleaning clients (Vanguard co-founder Sam R. Ross as a white police officer, no less, albeit one who calls himself a “pacifist”); and that’s to say nothing of Ruffrino’s fellow gamer and outcast (Madeline Marconi as a disabled white girl who reads Maya Angelou).
That things might not end well for them isn’t exactly surprising — but that only makes their reality, of course, all the more sad and unsettling.
Through Aug. 18. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $25. Windmill Arts Center, 2823 Church St., East Point. 470-588-6244. vanguardrep.com.
Bottom line: Another poignant topical Vanguard drama about race.