Student collaboration weaves an evolving tale 'In the Cotton'

The Baltimore Sun

A play coming to Howard Community College next week about the ripple effects of a hate crime on a college campus has its roots in an all-too-familiar reality in America.

But the way its script was developed in its later stages sets it apart.

The performances in “In the Cotton” were cultivated in an unusual way: A single cast of actors was assembled from three Maryland community colleges to work with an up-and-coming playwright to flesh out how they’d personally react to such an incident.

And through the course of three productions spread across nine months — Carroll Community College in February, Prince George’s Community College in April and now HCC — the students got the chance to inspire and inform New York playwright and actress Morgan McGuire as she continuously refined and retooled her script along the way.

The 90-minute play will have its third and final run this Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 9 to 12, at the Smith Theatre in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at HCC.

The cast began meeting with McGuire in summer 2016 to provide insight into their feelings on the status of race relations.

“You have to remember this was not that long after the riots and protests in Baltimore over the [2015] death of Freddie Gray,” said Bill Gillett, associate professor of theater and director of the HCC production.

“We were all eager to talk about race, but it’s a hard topic to shape,” he said.

“The plot is terribly ripped from the headlines. [Posters of] Confederate flags with cotton balls stuck to them were recently found around campus at American University,” he said of a September incident in Washington.

The commissioning of “In the Cotton” was facilitated by Brooklyn-based Farm Theater after Gillett approached the organization with a modified plan involving the three two-year schools.

“I know Jane Frazier of CCC and Gary Fry and Peggy Yates of PGCC, and have great relationships with all of them,” Gillett said of the plan’s genesis, noting he’d worked previously at the other two-year colleges before joining the HCC faculty in 2015.

Usually, the Farm Theater’s college collaboration program connects three four-year colleges that go on to work independently with a playwright. Working with community colleges is a first.

“Bill wanted to do this differently,” said Padraic Lillis, artistic director at the Farm Theater. “He wanted to share resources and keep the cast together as much as possible, and he presented the idea to me that the play be about race.”

Gillett said he felt the makeup of the student populations on the three campuses — ranging from mostly white in Carroll County to mostly diverse in Prince George’s, and with Howard’s student body falling somewhere in-between — would provide access to a broad range of perspectives.

And he preferred to have one cast that would be chosen by all three directors, though three of the 10 actors dropped out for personal reasons over the course of the productions and had to be replaced.

“The students love it, own it and feel very close to it,” Gillett said of the play. “The cast members who had to leave were heartbroken.”

In fact, Howard Community College is so pleased with the outcome of the collaborative effort that it will put “In the Cotton” into award consideration at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in January.

“The play deals with issues we’re all grappling with and it gets to the heart of our conversations about race — but it gets complicated,” he said. “It’s about the intersection of civil disobedience, protests, cultural movements and religion.”

Gillett especially appreciates the potential for growth that the collaborative process magnifies.

“Padraic picks playwrights who need to hear their plays read [aloud] so they can learn what dialogue is working and what isn’t,” he said.

McGuire, who said she began writing plays in 2013, echoed that sentiment.

“The process has been very helpful. But, I did have my first draft of ‘In the Cotton’ go on stage (at CCC), which I would recommend to absolutely no one,” she said.

The play is mainly an exploration of the power of protest, which in this case is in response to a hate crime against blacks, she said.

“It’s not healthy to whites, either, when people say that a certain segment of society is inferior,” McGuire said. “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The playwright offered high praise for the actors.

“They are delivering beautiful performances and they’re giving some of their views about how the world works,” she said.

Asia Nicholson, a Prince George’s Community College student when the project started who is now a senior majoring in English at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said she feels close to her character of Meridian, who is Christian and “into social justice.”

“Morgan took our personalities and put them into the play, and that allows us to have relationships [on stage] that are organic and fluid,” Nicholson said. “She was willing to take our words and make these big, beautiful characters, and that has helped me grow as a person and as an activist.”

JC Payne, a Howard sophomore majoring in theater who replaced an original cast member who had to bow out after the second production, said he believes the play will spark healthy conversation.

He said none of the characters portrayed in the play “is 100 percent good.”

“Everyone has a major flaw, and I really enjoy that,” he said. “It should make the audience reflect on themselves and their views.”

Payne said there have been very recent script changes, even with the play opening Thursday.

“Things can still change, so you really have to be on your toes,” he said of the cast’s commitment to the evolution of the production.

Lillis said he loves how the play makes theater-goers uncomfortable when they realize there are other valid points-of-view.

“It is thrilling and it should be performed on every college campus,” he said. “It’s a 360-degree view of racism and prejudice, which impact everyone.”

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“In the Cotton” will be performed in Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9, 10 and 11; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12. Tickets: howardcc.edu/box office or 443-518-1500.

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