By Manning Harris
I always look forward to seeing the winner of the annual Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, and this year it’s “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” by Jiréh Breon Holder. The show runs at Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage through Feb. 26.
Celise Kalke, the theatre’s Director of New Projects, coordinates the Kendeda Competition and is especially happy this year: The winner, chosen from a blind submission process in a field of 64 entries, is a former Kenny Leon Fellow at the Alliance; he was there two years before going to the Yale School of Drama.
But academic credentials by themselves do not a play make; so I’m delighted to report that “Too Heavy” is excellent. By the way, the four finalists in the competition receive staged readings at the Alliance, and the national theatre community is aware. But the crown jewel is the fully staged professional production. It’s really quite a launching pad for young playwrights.
“Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” directed by Margot Bordelon, takes place mainly in Nashville, summer of 1961, when Freedom Riders began riding interstate buses into the segregated South, to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court ruling which stated that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The violent reaction the riders provoked bolstered the Civil Rights Movement. And despite the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. The Board of Education decision, Southern schools were still largely segregated.
Bowzie (Stephen Ruffin), pronounced BOE-see, is the first person in his family or neighborhood with the chance to go to college—Nashville’s prestigious Fisk University. He has an academic scholarship there, and his wife Evelyn (Eboni Flowers) could not be more proud; neither could his best friend Tony (Rob Demery) and his pregnant wife Sally (Markita Prescott).
Much of the first act is vibrant and joyful, as these four friends celebrate their friendship with the power and fun and sense of boundless promise that youth often bestows. In fact, I can’t recall a better first act in the years I’ve enjoyed the Kendeda winners (in fairness, some of the plays don’t have two acts, but that’s neither here nor there). Mr. Holder is very talented, and his future is bright indeed.
But storm clouds are gathering, in the happy companionship of these friends and in the social and political times. Bowzie becomes aware of the Freedom Riders, and he has a social conscience. He begins to feel he should do his part to ensure the freedom and equality of his children. He decides to postpone his studies at Fisk.
This news is greeted with consternation by Evelyn, and to a lesser extent by Tony and Sally. Tony, a mechanic, points out that he can’t even read and write, and here is his friend blowing off a golden college opportunity. Evelyn is angry and thinks Bowzie is being a fool: “Why you just dangling your scrawny black ass in front of the Klan?” She knows the danger involved.
Indeed, when Bowzie is jailed in Mississippi, she won’t even take his phone calls. There are other repercussions from Bowzie’s absence among the friends, but I won’t mention them now. What I shall mention is that Mr. Ruffin’s sudden and prolonged absence from the action, except for making phone calls from a miserable jail, has a deleterious effect on the play. Mr. Ruffin is too vital and charismatic a performer to suddenly disappear, and I hope the playwright will consider play-doctoring his own play and get Bowzie back onstage sooner.
Not that Mr. Demery, Ms. Flowers, and Ms. Prescott are not fine and talented performers; they are. But the second act, despite an explosive, fun beginning, seems not as sure of itself. The characters’ motives become a bit vague and the plot starts to move in circumlocutions. The ending, for me, was startling and abrupt.
Nevertheless, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” is powerful stuff and merits your attention. Kudos to Ms. Bordelon’s seamless direction; I also admired Reid Thompson’s set design; his upstage back wall is a work of art.
I would also mention that I had just seen the riveting documentary on James Baldwin, currently running, called “I Am Not Your Negro”; it refreshes one’s memory of the anguish of the Civil Rights Movement of this period.
“Too Heavy For Your Pocket” is a welcome addition to the pantheon of Kendeda winners.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.