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THEATER REVIEW Too Heavy for Your Pocket
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-05-03

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Playwright: Jireh Breon Holder. At: Timeline Theatre Company at Baird Hall, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: TimelineTheatre.com and 773-281-8463; $40-$54. Runs through: June 29

Nowadays, protest demonstrations may be assembled within the boundaries of the law and the participants carry out their peaceful agendas uninterrupted.

We owe these displays of what was once labeled "civil disobedience" largely to the activists championing an end to racial segregation in our country during the mid-20th century. Among these were the so-called "Freedom Riders"—multiethnic bands of crusaders who defied, often at great peril, the de facto apartheid operating in the Southern states.

Given such a rich history of noble deeds, one would think that playwright Jireh Breon Holder could come up with a better takeaway to his play than the observation that national unrest can be tough on marital happiness.

The center of our dramatic universe is on the outskirts of Nashville, where a spartan shack serves as a quasi-communal home for two married couples. Lifelong besties "Bowsie" Brandon and Tony Carter, both only 20 years old, are husbands to pregnant wives—respectively, Evelyn and Sally-Mae—whom they love. Bowsie's acceptance at prestigious Fisk University seems a step toward ensuring a secure future for his family, but soon he succumbs to the influence of student radicals seeking to draw national attention to the systematic injustice perpetrated by the region's white supremacist policies. When a group of volunteers propose an interstate-bus journey through hot-button cities in Mississippi and Alabama, Bowsie leaves his plans and kin behind to answer the call of heroism and possible martyrdom.

There's no intrinsic harm in taking a microcosmic approach to history ( as an alternative to documentaries weighted down with facts, testimonials and bloated statistics ), but Holder's dedication to populist values in his portrayal of the hitherto-faceless casualties of a war conducted on our very streets, ultimately encumbers his characters with the larger-than-life grandiloquence of figures in a WPA mural.

Director Ron OJ Parson and a heavy-lifting cast toil mightily to impose on their paint-by-numbers text an intimacy sufficient to draw forth our empathy. However, despite artistic flourishes, Holder's propagandistic devices cannot help but proclaim their inspirational tract-like sensibilities—any more than Bowsie's Hollywood good looks and expertly tailored suit can reflect a rural upbringing and home-sewing skills of loving womenfolk.


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