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Theatre in Review: Too Heavy for Your Pocket/Must

Top: Brandon Gill, Hampton Fluker. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. Bottom: John Clarence Stewart, Brendan Dooling.

Two recent productions touch on very different, but, each in its own way, defining American moments. The remarkable Too Heavy for Your Pocket at Roundabout Underground focuses on two young black couples living in the countryside outside Nashville, for whom things are looking up. Bowzie Brandon, at twenty, has just been admitted, on a scholarship, to Fisk University; a gifted scholar, he feels as if his life is at last getting started. He is married to Evelyn, who supports them by singing in Nashville clubs. Sally-Mae Carter, who has treated Bowzie like a sibling since they were kids, is graduating from beauty school; she is also several months pregnant, and her husband, Tony, is working day and night to provide for their future. The picture is not entirely paradisiacal: They are dirt poor -- during one scene, Sally-Mae excuses herself and heads for the outhouse -- and each relationship has little cracks in it. Evelyn mourns the child she lost a year earlier, and, following a period of his carousing and sleeping around, a sense of trust has not been fully restored between Tony and Sally-Mae. Still, they are getting by, and have much to hope for.

But it is 1961, the world is in upheaval, and the shock waves are reaching their doorsteps. Bowzie, overwhelmed by college life, starts listening to the political talk of his fellow students and quickly concludes that he must join the Freedom Riders on a protest trip to Jackson and New Orleans. Unable to face Evelyn with his feelings, he writes her a letter -- which he doesn't send -- that says, "I thought picking a major and getting me a degree was gonna be the most important thing I ever did next to marrying you. But I'm starting to feel like maybe this was just a step toward something else. Toward something real different than what I thought..." When he finally tells them, the other three are at first horrified at his impulsiveness -- and Evelyn is livid, but Sally-Mae, exercising her natural moral authority, gets Evelyn and Tony to bless the idea.

What Sally-Mae cannot know is that Bowzie's decision will roil their lives with wave after wave of unintended consequences. He is quickly arrested and, lacking bail, ends up in a state prison farm. Evelyn, who didn't tell Bowzie that she is carrying another child, all but dissolves in anger at her missing husband. (She has a gnawing fear of abandonment, dating back to the father who left his family of twelve for a mistress, then returned, expecting to be taken back without question.) Tony, without the help of his best friend, seems to be drifting out of his marriage; when Sally-Mae catches him kissing Evelyn -- an impulsive gesture that brings a furious argument between them to a full stop -- it looks as if neither couple has a future.

The playwright, Jiréh Breon Holder, arftully entangles the four characters in a web of secrets and resentments, all of which must be bared if they are to be saved from lives of misery. At the same time, Too Heavy for Your Pocket is an acute picture of lives transformed by larger social forces. Bowzie and his loved ones have largely existed outside the civil rights movement, keeping their heads down and hoping to build decent lives for themselves; even with his newfound political consciousness, Bowzie is taking a terrible risk -- one that few members of the audience can image today. (When we talk about "resistance," we mean making a stern phone call to our Congressman. Bowzie is beaten and starved for his convictions.) His bravery borders on the foolish, as we see that, unlike many of his fellow protestors, Bowzie isn't part of a network of well-connected families ready with bail money.

The process by which the characters fight their way toward some kind of solid ground is illuminated by Margot Bordelon's observant direction and four first-rate performances. Brandon Gill's Bowzie is like a young rooster flapping around, hungry for experience, with eyes that seem capable of devouring the world -- which makes it all the sadder as he starts to come unglued under a prison regimen marked by filth and maggot-infested food. Eboni Flowers' Evelyn is stylish and funny, but with a coiled ball of resentment nested in the very center of her being; she flares up magnificently, especially in her knock-down-drag-out with Tony. ("Far as I can tell, Negro men a rare breed. Hell, 'men' too nice a word. Y'all boys! Black boys!") Hampton Fluker's increasingly withdrawn Tony simmers with a sense of injustice over Bowzie's absence and Sally-Mae's corrosive suspicions. As Sally-Mae, Nneka Okafor nearly steals the show with a commanding monologue about an incident, while shopping downtown, that crystallizes the awfulness of the Jim Crow laws: "They hopping on air-conditioned buses, complaining about where they get to sit, when my daughter might have to watch her mama squat like a dog over a box cause ain't no colored restrooms on Church Street."

The script calls for "grass everywhere, even indoors," and the set designer, Reid Thompson, has responded with an environmental concept that wraps the entire theatre in rough wood walls on a carpet of greenery; it's a smart idea that underlines how far from the center of social change these characters reside. Jiyoun Chang's lighting creates several evocative time-of-day looks, most notably transforming the space in the prison farm scenes with backlighting that seeps in between the planks of the walls. Valérie Thérèse Bart's costumes are attractive period creations -- including the suit that Sally-Mae makes for Bowzie -- and she draws a telling line between the two ladies' personal styles. Ian Scot's sound includes such period hits as "Please Mr. Postman," along with effects like car horns, birdsong, auto traffic, and more. The Roundabout Underground space is filled with futures at the moment; Too Heavy for Your Pocket is a lively, powerful piece of writing supported by a band of interesting new talents.

The tagline for Must at the Theater at St. Clement's is "unearthing Billy the Kid," and I'm afraid it is all too apt, for Charles Cissel's drama is pretty much dead on arrival. It drops Billy down on an empty stretch of rock in New Mexico where he is waiting for Pat Garrett, who will come and get him. He whiles away the hours with his girlfriend, Louisa, while they engage in an interminable back-and-forth about whether he should flee with her or stay and confront his fate. When not arguing laconically with Louisa, he is haunted by the memories of his mother, Catherine, and McCarty, the man she married, leaving Billy feeling permanently abandoned. He is also awash in memories of Garrett, who appears to be the last word in frenemies, jealous of Billy and eager to put a bullet in him.

As presented here, Billy isn't much of an outlaw; you'll have to take on faith the idea of him as a thief and killer of eight men. Instead, he comes off as a modern misunderstood adolescent, largely passive and given to nursing old wounds. This is surely the least interesting choice; this cowboy wouldn't hurt a fly. Since the action consists of periods of waiting broken up by elliptical, inconclusive encounters with characters who aren't really there, Must has zero dramatic tension. And the dialogue seems to be conceived on the idea that if you speak in short, repetitive sentences, the words will be thick with meaning. Louisa, encountering Garrett, says the sun is going down and the moon is coming up. He says, "I'll be leaving soon. I don't need the moon." She replies, "You don't need the moon? Oh, you who comes off the horizon. You come into this land and you don't need the moon? You are blinded. Blind. You don't understand. You don't have it to understand. You've wandered into the unknown. You can't hear me. You are not alive." Catherine, attempting to console her son, says, "Billy, Billy. You don't need your scared anymore. You can get rid of it now. Billy, I died for a life. Your life. Pain, inside pain took me, so it wouldn't take you. You don't need your inside pain anymore. It's time to kill it. You see that man saddled in the horizon. Get him. Don't let him stay in you. Take his sin in you and kill it. Then and only then can you find your own horizon." It may be the Wild West, but they apparently have unlimited access to the works of Kahlil Gibran.

Under the sluggish direction of Gabriel Vega Weissman, there's nothing the cast can do about these sleepy proceedings, although I was fascinated by the appearance of the West End musical theatre leading lady Sally Ann Triplett as Catherine. Surprisingly, the design is highly effective. Alexander Woodward's stark desert wilderness set creates a sense of desolation far more powerfully than the text. Zach Blane's lighting uses strongly articulated beam effects to isolate the characters. Because of their work, Must is visually arresting even when dramatically numb. Brooke Cohen Brown's costumes and Emma Wilk's sound are perfectly fine, as well. But whatever it is that interested Cissel and company about Billy the Kid remains obscured. The play ends where it has long insisted that it is heading, with a gunshot. Even with a running time of seventy minutes, it's a pity it doesn't come sooner. -- David Barbour

(7 November 2017)

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