Too Heavy for Your Pocket
Jiréh Breon Holder makes his New York premiere with a new play that touches on the relationship between activism and economic privilege.
Jiréh Breon Holder's Too Heavy for Your Pocket begins and ends with breath. The performers audibly exhale in unison, punctuating the play's two acts, reminding us of Eric Garner and all of the people for whom civil rights is not merely a philosophical discussion existing in a vacuum, but a matter of life or death — breath or no breath. It's a heavy topic that Holder presents with gentle sympathy in this New York premiere at Roundabout Underground.
While the themes of the play summon thoughts of Black Lives Matter, Holder sets his story during an earlier civil rights event, specifically the 1961 Freedom Rides, in which black and white activists rode side by side on interstate buses through the South to challenge persistent segregation. Bowzie Brandon (Brandon Gill) is a working-class black man (or "country negro," as one friend describes him) who receives a scholarship to Nashville's Fisk University, where he meets a group of activists and decides to become a Freedom Rider himself. His wife, Evelyn (Eboni Flowers), thinks he's throwing away a golden opportunity (Fisk will consider him withdrawn from school if he joins the riders). His old friend, Tony (Hampton Fluker), knows he will face violence, but Tony's wife, Sally-Mae (Nneka Okafor), encourages his turn toward activism: "We wanted our Bowzie Brandon to do something with his life," she reminds Tony and Evelyn, "and that's what he's doing."
Of the four, Bowzie is the likeliest to achieve the elusive dream of social mobility. At Fisk, he hobnobs with the children of black professionals — doctors and lawyers for whom it was never in doubt that their sons would attend college. When those sons get arrested for protesting, they go to jail knowing that there will be someone to bail them out. Though Bowzie gets arrested with them, he doesn't enjoy that luxury. Better than any play I've seen on the subject, Too Heavy for Your Pocket examines the role of class in our nation's civil rights struggle; it dares to ask, is agitating for justice an activity most easily pursued by the otherwise privileged?
As Bowzie struggles with the big questions, a rather hoary domestic drama plays out with the other three. Holder devotes long scenes to little affairs and personal conflicts, the kind of drama that dots most of our lives. It's pretty boring in comparison to the earth-shifting activism in which Bowzie is engaged, and perhaps that is the point. Still, three out of four of our characters opt for this road more traveled.
Thankfully, all four actors deliver excellent performances. Flowers is especially memorable as the singer-turned-housewife Evelyn, giving us shivers with her powerful rendition of a torch song about a tiny broken bird. Okafor is all sweetness as Sally-Mae. Fluker's charming portrayal of Tony helps us to understand why Sally-Mae sticks with her occasionally wayward husband. Gill makes an amiable protagonist: He's obviously intelligent, but also a little naive, making his journey into the wide world thrilling and heartbreaking all at once.
Director Margot Bordelon balances the conflicting tones of the play through an even-keeled production. Reid Thompson's set conjures a backwoods cabin surrounded by unkempt (if noticeably fake) grass, which extends throughout the theater and under the audience. Lighting designer Jiyoun Chang is able to transform this rustic setting into a Mississippi jail and a juke joint using some well-selected gels. Valérie Thérèse Bart's period costumes give us a sense of time and place, as well as objective. Bowzie's simple blue suit (given to him as a gift for entering Fisk) is relatively modest, but the awe with which the other three characters treat it lets us know their aspirations for Bowzie.
We grow to love the four characters in Too Heavy for Your Pocket, which keeps us invested in a play that occasionally meanders to the point of dullness. Holder is a young playwright of great sensitivity and perception, which is why he shouldn't be afraid to hit a bit harder in his next play. His characters are built strong enough that they won't break.