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A play born of anger: designing Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's urgent piece about young black men killed in the US

The designer of the upcoming staging of the American playwright's piece explains how she and director Roy Alexander Weise have approached the play

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Michael Ajao in Br'er Cotton
© Helen Murray

I worked with director Roy Alexander Weise on a project at the National Theatre last summer and when he approached me to design the set for Br'er Cotton, I simply couldn't refuse.

When I first read Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's play, I was completely overwhelmed with emotions. It is a powerful, tender story about race, identity and history repeating itself. Br'er Cotton really makes you think. Roy and I both felt a strong need to tell this story. It's relevant and happening now; young black men randomly being shot in an impoverished world and we wanted to show Black Lives Matter.

The Basquiat exhibition was a source of inspiration for us

The play is filled with anger, pain and frustration and yet is beautifully poetic and sensitive and I really wanted to reflect that in the design and not be too literal. We stripped everything back in the model and asked the question – what do we actually need to tell the story? This left us with three chairs and a table. Carrie Mae Weems' The Kitchen Table Series was a great inspiration and I wanted the focus to be on the words and the actions to be intense, so there's no clutter to hide behind, but people will recognise this as a home.

Trevor A Toussaint and Michael Ajao in Br'er Cotton
© Helen Murray

What's wonderful about Tearrance's stage directions is that they are so visually expressive 'a cotton field grows in the kitchen…' His words conjure up an abstract drawing but in a homely setting. There's a real sense of history, creeping into the present and it was getting that balance between the past and the now. There's a lot of rope within the set that illustrates the rawness of the cotton and the feeling of the earth and outside, which was really important to Roy and I. We wanted it to have a gritty, textual quality that references not only the cotton fields but also represent the horrific hangings that happened during that time.

I was shocked by the statistics of young black men killed, and I wanted the designs to reflect this

At the time of researching for this play, the Basquiat exhibition was on at the Barbican. His work similarly comments on power structures and systems of race. The angst portrayed in his paintings using text and images became a strong source of inspiration, there is an urgency and great intensity to his work. Tearrance's play was largely born out of anger and when I started researching statistics of young black men killed, it was shocking. I wanted to visually show that although we are just talking about one family's experience, there are thousands who are experiencing what this family are going through across America, every day!

It's been a wonderful working alongside Roy again. He is artistically acute and challenges any prop or material suggested – he asks questions and comes on the design journey, the process and result have felt like a total collaboration and one I have enjoyed immensely. I can't wait to bring this big story to the intimate space at Theatre503.

Br'er Cotton runs at Theatre503 runs from 12 March to 31 March with previews from today.

The set of Br'er Cotton
© Helen Murray