Dallas — Morehouse and Yale graduate Jiréh Breon Holder is young, as is his play Too Heavy for Your Pocket, which was produced by the Tony Award-winning Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2017. His inspiration for the play came through films Selma and The Butler, both of which led him to talk to his grandmother about 1961 and the Civil Rights movement. It came as a surprise to him that she knew people who participated in the movement, in particular a young man who chose to throw away a college scholarship and become a Freedom Rider instead.
Feeling a personal connection to the conflicting right-of-passage emotions that young civil rights worker experienced, Holder modeled his main character, Bowzie Brandon, after the young man his grandmother remembered, placing him at the center of this play, which is having its regional premiere from African American Repertory Theater, which is onstage at Mountain View College Theatre and directed by Regina Washington. The audience meets Bowzie at the moment he receives notification of an academic scholarship to Fisk.
Social movements are bigger than the people whose names become famous. Too Heavy for Your Pocket gives a kitchen-table perspective of one of the many untold stories of ordinary people in the movement. There is only a cursory reference to Martin L. King, Jr. and Malcolm X; Rosa Parks is a large unseen element because Bowzie was in college during the protests against the segregation of buses and eating establishments.
In 1946, 1950 and 1960, separate cases brought before the Supreme Court regarding segregation on buses intended for interstate passenger use, rendered those laws and practices unconstitutional. Despite those rulings, segregation continued, and with a vengeance in the south.
For Bowzie (Brandon McKnight), leaving his home on the outskirts of Nashville, Tenn., meant leaving his wife Evelyn Brandon (Raven Laws) and extending her time working as a singer to support them. It meant leaving the comfort and support given by close friends Tony Carter (Christopher Dontrell Piper) and his pregnant wife Sally-Mae (Shundra Brown). Bowzie struggled with whether to accept the scholarship.
But for his wife and friends, not accepting the scholarship was not an option. Per Census data, in 1960 only 41 percent of Americans had completed high school and of those, only 20 percent of black people. The numbers were far more dismal for college graduates with only 7.7 percent of the overall population and 3.3 percent of African-Americans. The Carters were living in a house with no indoor toilet, going outside to use an outhouse. As they saw it, of course Bowzie had to accept the scholarship and finish school. It’s not that they did not understand the issues—they were living their lives in the micro, locked in place by those issues.
During his first year, Bowzie discovers the macro that can no longer be ignored. Much to the dismay of Evelyn, Sally-Mae and Tony, he decides to abandon his studies and join the Freedom Riders. This decision sets in motion a chain of events which affect him and the people he left behind in ways none of them could have imagined. The crux of the play is that activism is expensive, its hazards extending beyond the front-line participants.
The first Freedom Rides left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961.
The set design for this piece necessitates three locations arranged in a linear fashion across the stage with the Carter home at center. The action moves back and forth among three main areas, each defined primarily by lighting. Prudence Jones’ set has the period essentials of a stove, icebox, sink and kitchen table positioned fairly tightly together because space is still needed on either side for external settings.
The actors work together well as an ensemble, smoothening awkward staging and unevenness in the script. Holder has crafted each character as part of a family, an ensemble, but it is the women whose turmoil is more pronounced. Strength and damage can look the same but Laws finds some distinctions, pushing Evelyn forward with defiance. Some of the most authentic moments occur between Evelyn and Sally-Mae.
The intensity McKnight brings to his character is sometimes diminished by swallowed words. Of the four characters, it is Tony who remains slightly mysterious. He is a laborer who understands his lot while believing in the possibility of more. Piper plays him smartly without attempting to fill in all of the blanks, which creates an interest in knowing more about Tony. Piper is consistent.
Overall, this is a story people should see—this team is giving it life and broadening our understanding of the historical context.
Holder describes his theme as a questions—how does one participate in a political construct when every avenue available for that maneuvering is closed? When does that become too heavy? As Holder gives voice to the ignored through Too Heavy for Your Pocket, he also confirms the black family as a unit who work and love hard, determined to survive any load.