Theater Review: TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET (TimeLine Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 2, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


The price of progress is no abstraction, not during the fully-freighted 160 minutes of Jiréh Breon Holder’s civil rights drama Too Heavy for Your Pocket. A TimeLine Theatre time capsule thrillingly staged by Ron OJ Parson, this blast from the past goes beyond yesterday’s infamous clash of activists against fire hoses to examine the internal resistance that also marred these moments.

Not everyone was ready to sacrifice for an uncertain victory, to go beyond integrating lunch counters to open defiance of cracker sheriffs and their attack dogs.

No question, this Chicago premiere celebrates the courage of 1961’s Freedom Riders, protesters who marched and took buses to defy Jim Crow racism and to make the Constitution matter for all. But Holder’s taut two acts also calibrate the cost of assuming, as the play’s reluctant champion proclaims, “full responsibility” for unconditional equality. (The “keep your eyes on the prize” title refers to a stone symbolizing the congealed courage that only a group can carry for a cause.)

Holder anchors this ambivalence in two Nashville couples: Caught on the cutting edge of history and weighing the risk of change against the certainties of a college education, they wonder if Martin Luther King’s Gandhi-like nonviolence can work. What, they ponder, will best serve the babies they’re beginning — a solid job or a criminal record from arrests for civil disobedience?

Bowzie Brandon (Jalen Gilbert) embodies this dilemma: About to enter Fisk University, he finds himself challenged by campus radicals to set his scholarship aside and to demonstrate in Jackson, Mississippi against the entrenched bigotry of white supremacy. Newly pregnant, his wife Evelyn (Ayanna Bria Bakari) considers Bowzie’s crusade another abandonment — what her dad did to her mom. Evelyn has turned hard with a hate that, unlike her husband, she can’t discharge through action. It poisons her into pessimism. She sees desertion where Bowzie means commitment to a cause beyond a marriage or a family.

Their best friends represent the other responses to a crossroads crisis. Religious but not paralyzed by her piety, Sally-Mae Carter (Jennifer Latimore) is sympathetic to Bowzie’s motivation to march. Among other inequities, she’s enraged at not finding public restrooms for “colored” folks on Church Street and having to improvise her own outhouse. Pragmatic and settled into stuff, her horndog husband Tony (Cage Sebastian Pierre) opts out of agitation. He’d rather run the perils of infidelity than, like Bowzie, freeze in a filthy lockup, eaten up by insects.

Holder contrasts the shaken domesticity of Sally-Mae, Evelyn and Tony with the letters that Bowzie writes to the more receptive Sally-Mae when Evelyn won’t take his calls from jail. Too Heavy for Your Pocket has an open ending: As Bowzie seeks bail, its story remains unresolved: The four characters, pinpointed by lighting designer Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, stare off into the future.

It’s obvious who they’re looking at.

What’s equally undeniable is the riveting young quartet who make a play that’s way too long (generous in its exposition would be a kinder explanation) manage to matter. Gilbert’s Bowzie is no pioneering saint from Tennessee: His rage against wrongs comes from the inside out and his convictions cost. Fighting for her own freedom, Bakari’s Evelyn hurts to see: Her willful misunderstanding of her husband’s “martyrdom” is a violation in itself. Latimore brings a delicate evangelical grace to sweet-souled Sally-Mae and Pierre a pointless toughness to his complex Tony.

On this stage America’s once-and-future struggle from 58 years ago gets a promissory note. Tragically, the “civil wrongs” of 2019 must be confronted, déjà vu at its worst.

In a play where silences signal so much, one captivating trope is the need to sit still and breathe hard, whether you’re on the margins or at these epicenters. In its ultimate appraisal, progress is always personal. This play reinvents change at its core — and values as they’re forged in choices good and bad.

photos by Lara Goetsch

Too Heavy for Your Pocket
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8;
Sun at 2; Tues at 7:30 (June 25)
ends on June 29, 2019
for tickets, 773.281.8463 x 6 or TimeLine

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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