REVIEW: "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" - exploring those "small places, close to home"

REVIEW: "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" - exploring those "small places, close to home"

“Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

—Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Great Question,” remarks delivered at the United Nations in New York on March 27, 1958

It is no accident that so many plays are set in the home—the ubiquitous couch or kitchen table downstage center, themselves inert and yet active witnesses to the fullness of life unfolding before, on, and around them, forming the very situs where universal human rights begin.

Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Too Heavy for Your Pocket”, a new play by Jiréh Breon Holder that opened last Thursday, invites the audience into the home of a poor, African American couple in Nashville, Tennessee during the summer of 1961 as they come to grips with the painful progress puncturing and permeating the air they breathe.  The eleventh and latest entry in the superb Roundabout Underground series staged in the Black Box at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” is a stunning, powerful, and moving portrait of two ordinary couples living at the crossroads of an extraordinary time. 

The fight for civil rights in the 1960s is often dramatized on the street, at the restaurant counter, or in the courtroom.  And yet, it is in “small places, close to home” where the substance of the fight finds its truest expression.  Mr. Holder, in his New York debut, hones in on that notion, producing a beautiful, joyous, and heart-wrenching story that examines life on both the margins and at the epicenter of historic change, challenging us to think about our role in making progress, from the moral imperative at hand to the risk, cost, and danger involved.  Like so much theatre in 2017, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” is starkly relevant.

The play opens as Tony and Sally-Mae Carter (Hampton Fluker and Nneka Okfor) celebrate Sally-Mae’s graduation from beauty school alongside their closest friends, Bowzie and Evelyn Brandon (Brandon Gill and Eboni Flowers).  Money is tight, opportunity scarce, and yet an infectious optimism hangs in the air.  Sally-Mae is pregnant.  Bowzie is awaiting word of his acceptance to Fisk University.  For this close-knit four, the tumult of the early 1960s is something that is happening in the distance, a voice on the radio while washing dishes, some gossip shared in the pews at Sunday service, even an inconvenience when bus boycotts upend dress shopping.  All that changes, however, when Bowzie has a political awakening and risks life and limb to become an historic participant in the Freedom Rides.

“Too Heavy for Your Pocket” tackles the class and political divisions within the African American community during the Civil Rights movement, a treatment rarely seen on stage or screen where heroes and idealism ring; instead, these characters are, for the most part, reluctant participants in the fight.  They don’t have that privilege.  Bowzie, a whip-smart country boy, encounters “educated Negroes” at Fisk University whom he refers to as “uppity fools.”  But these peers also inspire him to realize that the complacent slice of the American Dream that he and the other members of our quartet have become accustomed to is not the justice they deserve.  That revelation, though important, rips apart the life they know.

Much like activists in the era of Trump are discovering, the fight for justice and equality exacts a personal toll, inviting discomfort and discord into the home.  Today, those on the frontlines speak of the importance of “self-care”; in 1961, the concept did not exist.  “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” displays the cost of activism in extreme close-up.  There is no hiding in a black box theatre, and each member of this remarkable cast gives raw, rich, and natural performances under the smart direction of Margot Bordelon.  The play is suffused with music and the theatre floor covered in a bright green straw grass; together, these elements mix with the realism of the performances to produce a poetic magic that is transporting.

Among its many purposes, the theatre serves as a mirror, reflecting past and present, and portending future.  While Act II descends into melodrama that nearly cheapens the central theme and plot, on the whole, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” offers a fresh take on oft-trodden ground, exploring questions each of us must ask of ourselves in this time of renewed battle over civil and human rights.  It reminds us that history is not inevitable; it is made at great sacrifice, often by ordinary people in “small places, close to home.” 

Deep breaths by the characters punctuate the play; I found myself holding mine many times, and letting out once big exhale in the end—stirred, changed, and grateful.

Bottom Line: This play is a must see.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket
Black Box Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
Roundabout Theatre Company
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: October 5, 2017
Final Performance: November 19, 2017
All Tickets $25

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