Encore Michigan

Open Book’s ‘Too Heavy For Your Pocket’ reminds us that the history of racism keeps repeating

Review May 25, 2022 David Kiley

TRENTON, MI–There is a lore, perhaps, around the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that could lead people today to think that all African-American people at that time were Freedom warriors.

Not so. For good reason, black families feared for their family members who joined the Freedom Riders or marched in protest or sat in at white’s only lunch counters. The Klan, and law enforcement (and the overlap of the two institutions), frequently resorted to head busting and murder to try and preserve Jim Crow status quo. It was a scary time. And it’s a time that sadly is not over.

Just because we don’t have separate drinking fountains and literal back-of-the-bus policies for black Americans, doesn’t mean that there aren’t a thousand other ways the “back-of-the-bus” mentality is still in force and practice.

Into this maelstrom of memories, playwright Jireh Breon Holder wrote Too Heavy for Your Pocket, presented now by Open Book Theatre here through June 12, which examines the lives and conflicts of two black couples who are family to one another: Tony (Craig Ester), his wife Sally Mae (Ashley Kay); Bowzie (Justin Montgomery) and his wife, Evelyn (Maegan Murphy).

At the core of the story is that Bowzie is the first among his family to be enrolled in a four year college. He is smart, and has been given a full-ride scholarship. But Bowzie is also restless, and is drawn into the energy of the Civil Rights movement, and joins the Freedom Riders very much against the wishes of Evelyn who wants her husband at home, going to college and building a better life for them and the baby they have on the way.

The 1961 Freedom Ride that took volunteers from Tennessee to Louisiana seeking to extend the equality promised in America’s Declaration of Independence and US Constitution to African-Americans living in the Deep South–African Americans who were valued at 3/5 of a person during the founding as a carrot to keep the Southern colonies on board.

While the conflict around Bowzie is an engine that drives the story, much of the play revolves around domestic situations–disagreements and infidelities–that go a long way to establishing what the characters care about and what motivates them before we get into the high-stakes, high drama of whether and how they will participate in the biggest issue of the day in the first year of John Kennedy’s Presidency.

Woven into the storytelling of their days are a few realities of the day-to-day lives of black Americans in the south in 1961 that are heartbreaking and maddening. Imagine the loss of dignity, for example, of a pregnant black woman out on a shopping trip where there are only whites-only bathrooms, necessitating that she relieve herself in a box in an alley while a friend stands by to hold her purse.

This story and play is rooted in a time sixty years ago. But it’s tragically so relevant and thought provoking today. One of the top issues for companies today, for example, is Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) because there is still so much evidence of racism within employers. One of the top issues in the Michigan theatre community is DEI in casting, administration of theaters and boards.

The cast who inhabit these characters do so with exceptional balance and collaboration with one another. Directed by Lynch Travis, it is a tight, well-told story that acts as a reminder that we have a lot of work to do. Still.

Scenic Design: Krista Schafer Ewbank, Gordon Mosley and Bradly Byrne.

Lighting Design: Harley Miah

Costume Design: Mary Copenhagen

Props: Amanda Bates.

Sound Design: Frannie Shepherd-Bates

Intimacy Choreographer: Maria Tejada.

Week of 7/4/2022

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