Review: “Too Heavy for Your Pocket”

Evelyn (Ayanna Bria Bakari, from left), Sally-Mae (Jennifer Latimore), and Tony (Cage Sebastian Pierre) are surprised and upset when Bowzie (Jalen Gilbert) tells them he’s decided to defer college to become a Freedom Rider. ­(Photo by Lara Goetsch)

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Where: TimeLine Theatre Company,
615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through June 29
Tickets: $40-$54
Phone: 773-281-8463 ext. 6

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

TimeLine Theatre Company continues its penchant for presenting plays that illuminate history in unexpected ways with the Chicago premiere of Jiréh Breon Holder’s “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,”  following its debut at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and an extended run at the Roundabout Theatre in New York.

Set in and around a ramshackle house in Nashville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1961, the old-fashioned kitchen-sink drama with modern expressionistic accents looks at the Civil Rights era from the perspective of ordinary African Americans rather than important people or momentous events.

Holder’s story about the making of an activist and its mostly deleterious effects on those he loves  focuses on two young couples who have been friends for years. At its center is Bowzie Brandon (Jalen Gilbert) who has just gotten a full-tuition scholarship to Fisk University and is set to become the first in his family to attend college. His wife Evelyn Brandon (Ayanna Bria Bakari) has been supporting them  with a reasonably successful career as a singer and is happy to do so.

Bowzie’s best buddy is Tony Carter (Cage Sebastian Pierre), a laborer with an eye for the ladies. He is married to Sally-Mae Carter (Jennifer Latimore), a very proper church-going woman who objects to “ugly words” and who has known Bowzie since they were children.

The play opens with a joyous celebration in the Carter’s kitchen, not only because of Bowzie’s achievement but also because Sally-Mae is graduating with her beautician’s degree and also is pregnant. She’s made “Mama Nola’s famous strawberry cake” for the occasion, but in an early sign of trouble, the top gets smashed.

Rural, poor, and unsophisticated – Tony calls him a “country Negr0” – Bowzie is unprepared for the rich, better-educated blacks at Fisk and feels increasingly out of place. He also gets involved with the Civil Rights movement recruiting on campus and decides to join the Freedom Riders on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi, and on to New Orleans.

When he breaks the news to the others, Tony can’t believe Bowzie would give up the gains promised by college. He disparagingly quips of the Freedom Riders, “Educated Negros will find anything to be riled up about.” Evelyn is furious that the husband she’s loyally supported would leave without consulting her and put himself in such danger. She basically cuts him off. Only Sally-Mae understands Bowzie’s need to do something to nurture his ideals and hopes for the future, though she worries the costs of change may be too high.

Sally-Mae’s concerns are well founded. Bowzie’s situation becomes dire, then desperate, and he encounters the same economic and class distinctions on the road as he did at Fisk. Beaten and jailed, he doesn’t have the money to make bail, unlike most of the other Freedom Riders, black and white.

Meanwhile, everything back home falls apart. Sally-Mae and Tony’s marriage disintegrates for a variety of reasons including his infidelity and distress over Bowzie’s absence and her growing outrage over segregation. Evelyn, who won’t even answer Bowzie’s phone calls, is as broken as the bird she sings about at work, and she and Sally-Mae have a falling out.

Fueling Evelyn’s anger is the revelation that Bowzie has been writing to Sally-Mae from the road, but we’ve known it all along. Initially unable to communicate his feelings to his wife, he starts composing letters to Sally-Mae while on the bus to Fisk and continues on the Freedom Ride.

The letters are read out loud and unfortunately substitute for action, especially in the weaker second act. This is one of several drawbacks of the script, which sometimes doesn’t make complete sense. For example, it’s not entirely clear why Bowzie has to make an either-or choice between school and a Freedom Ride in the first place, though maybe I am missing something in the circumstances Holder makes up. In addition, the unrelenting vehemence of Evelyn’s reaction isn’t believable, nor is her insistence on withholding crucial information from him, despite her justification for this.

While some scenes work very well, thanks to director Ron OJ Parson and the outstanding cast, others go on too long or fall flat. Near the end of the first act, for instance, the couples return from a revival meeting and proceed to recreate it at home. The singing and dancing are spirited but seem to be milking the experience for all its worth. The evening’s finale, on the other hand, is an inconclusive letdown with each person standing, individually, on the lawn and exhaling.

That lawn, by the way, extends into the kitchen of José Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scenic design, one of several non-realistic elements. Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting design and Christopher Kriz’s sound design and original music also deserve praise, as does Jermaine Hill’s music direction, which helps show off Bakari’s beautiful singing voice. Special kudos go to Alexia Rutherford’s detailed period costumes: They’re worthy of a fashion show, matching shoes and all.

Interestingly, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” (the title is explained near the end) is ostensibly about Bowzie’s choice and its consequences, but the character who captivated me completely was Latimore’s rock-solid, complicated Sally-Mae.