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Too Heavy For Your Pocket

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 5, 2017

Eboni Flowers and Nneka Okafor
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Too Heavy For Your Pocket, opening tonight at the Roundabout's Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center, provides a truly auspicious introduction of playwright Jiréh Breon Holder to New York theater audiences. This is an exceptional work, one that will dive-bomb into your head and your heart as it recounts the experiences of two young black couples in the early days of the Freedom Riders, the Civil Rights busing protest from the early 1960s in which, among many others, the 19-year-old future Congressman John Lewis was arrested and jailed.

Directed with fierce intensity by Margot Bordelon and featuring a stellar cast, Too Heavy For Your Pocket would seem to be inspired, at least in part, by Lewis and others who were involved in the events of 1961, when the play takes place. At center, especially in Act I, is Bowzie (Brandon Gill), a young man around Lewis's age at the time, who has just been awarded a full scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, where the characters live. This is an extraordinary opportunity within Bowzie's community, one that has been afforded to few of his family, friends, and acquaintances. It is assuredly a cause for celebration, and it is a celebration that introduces us to Bowzie, his wife Evelyn (Eboni Flowers), and their closest friends, Tony and Sally-Mae (Hampton Fluker and Nneka Okafor).

Actually, this is a double celebration as the two couples gather at Tony and Sally-Mae's home for cake and a few surprises. Sally-Mae is being fussed over because she is pregnant and because she is graduating from glamour school. And everyone is bursting with pride over Bowzie. The high point is the gift of a suit that Sally-Mae has made for him, something appropriate for him to wear as a college student. The only one who is having second thoughts is Bowzie himself, deeply worried about how he will fit in with the children of upscale black families at Fisk and wondering if his life might need to take him in another direction altogether.

Bowzie is especially taken by the stories he has been hearing about the Freedom Riders and longs to join them. But Too Heavy For Your Pocket is not just a thumping tale of heroism in the face of virulent racism. It is entrenched in the reality of Bowzie's life, and encompasses his responsibilities as a family man, the significance of his educational opportunity, his deeply entrenched friendship with Tony and Sally-Mae, and the all-abiding role of faith and the black church in all of their lives.

As Bowzie, Brandon Gill owns the stage in a performance that brings to mind a young Denzel Washington. He embraces and exudes every aspect of the character with genuine theatrical charisma. His character is smart, popular, and confident, and up to now, he has been quite comfortable projecting this image of himself. But he also shows us his confusion and anxiety over his future, and his growing commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, even as he thinks he understands the impact any decision he makes will have on his wife and friends. When he elects to join the Freedom Riders, the consequences reverberate through the rest of the play. Like many others, he is arrested and incarcerated, but unlike most, he does not have the family connections or financial means to get out on bail. His time at Parchman State Prison Farm is hell, and we join his friends in worrying whether he will survive.

As is often the case, it is the women who bear the burden of keeping things going at home, and they are more the focus of Act II. Sally-Mae, who has been the prototypical upbeat, church-centered wife who won't even abide an off-color remark, lets out a healthy "God damn" of her own as she wonders aloud when she will have her own Freedom Ride so she doesn't have to be constantly humiliated as a black woman. And Evelyn, who has always been self-assured, all but crumbles in the wake of her fear and anxiety about Bowzie, about herself, and about their own unborn child. For a time, she refuses to take her husband's phone calls or read the letters he has been sending to Sally-Mae, whom he sees as his ally. Both women have lost faith in their husbands (Sally-Mae's husband Tony has given her cause in the past), and they are having to stumble forward as best they can in a constant state of dread.

Too Heavy For Your Pocket is remarkable for the depth of its exploration of a tumultuous time in our history. Playwright Jiréh Breon Holder has managed to captivate the audience by examining issues of race, gender, power, faith, and politics without ever losing sight of his characters. And in doing so, has shown himself to be a powerful voice to be reckoned with.

Too Heavy For Your Pocket
Through November 19
Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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