Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm is a playwright learning to channel his rage. In 2014, the St. Louis native was away from home when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, a northern suburb of the city.
The riots and protests that followed the highly disputed and emotionally charged event left Chisholm feeling despair. He knew he needed to find a way to make sense of his distance from home and the anger that welled inside him as his hometown spiraled in the aftermath of the shooting.
Chisholm grew up an avid reader and writer. In college, he took creative writing so many times he was finally told there was no point in taking it again. He reluctantly tried a playwriting class.
Chisholm’s first assignment was, naturally, to write a play, and it was an immediate struggle.
“I had no idea how to make a story interesting when it was just people talking," he says.
But from that challenge, Chisholm realized he could make a play interesting by embracing his love of language and the way people speak. As a result, he says, his writing is often poetic in a way it couldn’t be if he were simply writing poetry.
“I’m scared of the intent of poetry, but this way the language can just be poetic,” he says.
The world premiere of Chisholm’s newest play is part of the New Works Festival hosted by Dallas' Kitchen Dog Theater. Br’er Cotton is the anchor main-stage production for the festival, which also features staged readings of new plays and Playwrights Under Progress Fest, a collaboration between Dallas' Junior Players and high school playwrights.
Br'er Cotton takes place at the former site of a once-thriving cotton mill, now an impoverished neighborhood. Ruffrino, a 14-year-old boy, is — like Chisholm — distressed by recent killings of young black men and grows ever more at odds with his family while their home literally sinks into the ground. Ruffrino seems to be the only one who notices the problem.
Chisholm started the play based on an image he had for the final scene. He doesn’t want to disclose that image; you will need to see the play to understand it, he says. From that image, he worked backward and created the story.
The playwright first created Br’er Cotton as part of a “bake-off” (a term used by playwrights that means starting with ideas or concepts and creating a play based on those basic “ingredients”) during a summer theater residency. He turned the few scenes he’d written there into his Master of Fine Arts thesis at Catholic University of America and ultimately found Kitchen Dog through an open call for new play submissions as part of the National New Play Network.
“I was having a lot of rage and murderous thoughts. I wanted to see what that rage could look like onstage, to have a discussion around it," he says. "Theater can be an escape, but this is not. I wanted to show how rage can be a catalyst for discussion.”
Now Chisholm calls the rage a dull ache (“like a bad tooth”). Nearly three years have passed since the Michael Brown shooting, but in that time, more shootings have taken place. Chisholm never dreamed that rage, those thoughts, that ache, would bring him to Dallas, a city on the cusp of the first anniversary of its own shooting.
“I want to write plays that will one day become irrelevant,” he says.
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Kitchen Dog selected Br’er Cotton before the July 2016 shooting that killed four Dallas police officers and one DART police officer and injured five more officers and two civilians. Chisholm sees how timely his work is for the city.
“This is a place that could use this," he says. "This is a city that is ripe for this conversation.”
He’ll have to wait on the irrelevant part. For now, Chisholm wants to write plays that deal with contradictory feelings, like anger. He believes there is power in anger, but, like his main character, knows that power can be used as well as misused.
Br'er Cotton, through July 1, Kitchen Dog Theater at Trinity River Arts Center, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway. For times and tickets, $15-$20, visit kitchendogtheater.com.