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by Jire’h Breon Holder

African American Repertory Theater

Brandon McKnight as Bowzie Brandon
Shundra Brown as Sally-Mae Carter
Christopher Dontrell Piper as Tony Carter
Raven Laws as Evelyn Brandon

Directed by Regina Washington
Set and Light Design by Prudence Jones
Sound Design by Bear Hamilton
Costume Design by Regina Washington
Stage Manager – Sharanna Hunter
Ass’t Stage Manager – Malaisian Parker
Property Design – Angela Washington

Reviewed Performance: 7/21/2018

Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Set in the outskirts of Nashville in 1961, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” tells the story of a young black man, Bowzie Brandon, who gives up his college scholarship to Fisk University to be part of history and join the Freedom Riders as they daringly risk their lives and ride buses into the Deep South. His decision to go on this journey has a resounding impact on both himself and his young wife Evelyn, and their two best friends, Sally-Mae and Tony Carter. The playwright’s decision to explore this historical journey through the lens of the working poor adds a resonance that feels terribly important and brings up points that are uncomfortable even 50 years on, but which are very worthy of exploration.

This production is a fine one, with seasoned actors in the four roles. To have obtained the rights for a Regional Premiere is momentous and feels especially resonant in this the 50th anniversary year of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Director Regina Washington has done a good job with the production and does the theme and the play justice. Her casting is excellent, and many of the scenes within the play are moving and emotional. Washington seems to have been seeking the love in each scene, so that we truly care about each of the four in this ensemble piece.

Bowzie Brandon as portrayed by Brandon D. McKnight is a man out of step with his environment. His mind is sharp, and he is not cut out for manual labor. He half-jokes that he “would have been a terrible slave”. That quip is telling – that in this time, the only jobs available for a black man were those involving manual labor. While his friends and family are proud that he “will be the first man in this neighborhood to go to college,” Bowzie is unsure of himself and his ability to navigate socializing with the “uppity fools” and “college Negroes” he will find there. McKnight does a stellar job at showing us Bowzie’s uncertainty, and his eventual yearning to make a difference and to have “been somebody”, even if he must sacrifice his life. He especially shines in his monologues that stand for his letters home – first from college, and then from jail as the Freedom Ride takes him to prison in the Deep South.

Bowzie’s best friend Tony is a womanizer and mechanic, who is trying hard to do the right thing by his pregnant wife Sally-Mae. Christopher Dontrell Piper uses his solid physicality to root himself in this character. Piper uses explosive anger to great advantage during a powerful turning point in the play and allows us to see beneath his man-trying-to-get-by demeanor. Piper never allows Tony to become a shallow character, which could have easily happened in lesser hands. Piper is also excellent at conveying that Tony is a man who understands his weaknesses, and while he is trying to overcome them, he also won’t allow his lack of education to be viewed as a detriment. He is who he is. Piper finds the man’s pride beautifully and stands solidly within it.

The women in this play have powerful moments in the first act, but it is in the second act as the actions of their men force them into new actions of their own that they truly shine. Shundra Brown’s portrayal of the calm, kind, and deeply religious Sally-Mae is the glue that holds this production together. Brown’s ability to let gentleness rule the stage until she is pushed beyond her limits of patience is gorgeous, and provides the perfect tone to allow the audience to see how difficult it is to be the one who holds tight to their convictions. Brown has a monologue in the second act about trying to find a bathroom that will haunt you for a long time when her long-held anger finally boils over, and it is her fine acting ability that allows you to feel her pain as if it is your own. Raven Lawes’ proud and refined portrayal of Evelyn Brandon, whose character “has a voice like an angel” is at her best when using her own beautiful voice. She has a song that clearly outlines how she is like a “bird with a broken wing,” and within the confines of that song, the audience truly feels how trapped Evelyn feels. Lawes has other sharply defined moments on stage that work well. Her extreme rage that her husband has given up a college scholarship moves the play forward relentlessly. Lawes does an excellent job at showing us a woman who perhaps could have found her own freedom in singing for a living but has chosen instead to follow a different dream of raising children and making a home.

As an ensemble, these actors work very well together. They have some fun moments on stage as they return from a revival where their energy soars, and they also do well in their fights to be heard and understood. There is a lot of conflict in these two hours as the characters explore not only what it means to be black and in the middle of societal change, but what it means to be poor and in those circumstances. The playwright seems to be making the point that perhaps protesting is something only well-off people have time to do. It’s a profound point, and as all good plays do, it creates a somewhat uncomfortable exploration of how we are each mandated to move forward in our own changing times.

The set and lighting design by Prudence Jones is outstanding. Grass grows not only outside the simple kitchen area of the Carter home where most of the action takes place, but in it as well. This conveys the idea of people rooted – both in time and place, and also suggests the grass-roots movement that became the Freedom Riders. The edges of the set dissolve into air, evoking not only the poverty of the people inhabiting the space, but also that an era is passing. Well-worn practical kitchen appliances and a pretty tablecloth flung over the aging table were just right. Lighting is used to great effect to create different spaces outside the home as well. The director took on costume design as well, and Regina Washington has done a wonderful job with her period dresses and outfits. Hair and makeup are also excellent and helped shape our understanding of the characters. The sound design by Bear Hamilton was playing as we took our seats, and was a treat all by itself, full of old standards from the 1960’s that set a powerful mood before the play opened.

The theatre itself is enormous, a beautiful space with comfortable seating. However, this space created a problem for this production that the fine performers fought hard to overcome. This feels like it should be an intimate play, and I believe may have worked better in a smaller space. When the characters came far downstage, closest to the audience, the play took on a life it didn’t have when they were far upstage in the kitchen set. Hearing the actors at times was also difficult – the actors are to not to blame, rather it was the mike system that dimmed out for chunks of the play. These issues were mostly confined to the first act. I give a lot of credit to this quartet of actors – the performance I attended had a small, very quiet audience. The actors were completely professional on the stage and continued to present us with an excellent and thought-provoking play. I would recommend you go out to Mountainview College and see it – and take your kids, there is a lot here that is important, and it’s beautifully said and staged in this production. Appropriate for ages 11 and up.

TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET by Jire’h Breon Holder
Presented by African American Repertory Theatre
Performed at MVC Performance Hall, Mountain View College
4849 W. Illinois Ave, Dallas TX
Performances July 20-Aug 4th, Thurs-Sundays. Evenings at 7:30pm, Matinees at 2:30pm