You may have heard of The Freedom Riders, the 1960s Civil Rights activists who travelled, en masse, in buses, into the Deep South to protest segregation. But you probably don’t know any of the Freedom Riders’ names.
After seeing “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” though — a drama by Jiréh Breon Holder that will be at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 19 — you may never forget Bowzie Brandon. Holder uses the fictional character to bring into sharp focus the sacrifice made by the Freedom Riders — and, by extension, anyone who takes a risk in support of a cause.
The play takes place in Nashville, in the summer of 1961, and focuses on two working class couples: Bowzie (played by Donnell E. Smith) and his wife, Evelyn (Felicia Boswell), and their friends Tony (Landon G. Woodson) and Sally-Mae (Joniece Abbott-Pratt).
Bowzie has received a scholarship to Nashville’s Fisk University — a golden opportunity to get ahead in life — but has a hard time adjusting to college, feeling out of place among his more affluent classmates. Becoming a Freedom Rider, in effect, amounts to throwing his scholarship away. Among the play’s three other characters (there are no others), ardent church-goer Sally-Mae is the most supportive, putting aside practical concerns to embrace Bowzie’s idealism.
Sally-Mae’s marriage to Tony, though, is troubled. He may be gambling, or having an affair, but is acting suspiciously, staying out late, night after night, and telling Sally-Mae he is working. Their relationship mirrors Bowzie and Evelyn’s, to some degree: Things are looking up for Sally-Mae, professionally, as she has graduated from beautician school. And Tony — who is illiterate, but makes a decent living as a mechanic — still seems to be deeply in love with her, though he’s distracted by whatever else is going on in his life.
While Bowzie seems intent on upending his life for a cause, Tony may be turning his back on his own good fortune for some tawdry reason.
Holder and director L.A. Williams effectively illustrate the dangers faced by the Freedom Riders — and particularly a relatively poor one such as Bowzie, who has no one to bail him out once he gets into trouble — without showing buses, or angry crowds, or jails. Holder’s neat resolution of the Tony/Sally-Mae storyline felt contrived, though.
Holder, who is ultimately more interested in inspiration than tragedy, cleverly makes Evelyn a singer, and her big, Nina Simone-like ballad (titled “Evelyn’s Song” in the program, with lyrics by Holder and music by Ian Scot) provides one of the play’s most intense moments. Evelyn’s earthiness and practicality balances Bowzie’s more innocent outlook on life; Tony and Sally-Mae have a similar mix, though in this case, it’s Tony who’s more of a realist.
While “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” takes place mainly inside Tony and Sally-Mae’s home, set designer Wilson Chin shows a dazzling blue sky, rather than drab walls, at the back and sides of the stage. It represents the possibility of freedom — always there, and so close you feel you can reach out and touch it. Or at least try.
“Too Heavy for Your Pocket” will be at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 19. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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