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DOUBLE REVIEW Byhalia, Mississippi; Mutt
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

Byhalia, Mississippi

Playwright: Evan Linder. At: The New Colony & Definition Theatre Company at Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: Article Link Here ; $20. Runs through Feb. 14


Playwright: Christopher Chen. At: Red Tape Theatre & Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; Article Link Here ; $15-$30. Runs through Feb. 14

Four Chicago theater companies have collaborated to produce two very different plays that focus on race in the United States. On the political-satirical end of the spectrum, Red Tape Theatre and Stage Left Theatre serve up the Chicago premiere of Christopher Chen's 2014 comedy Mutt, while Definition Theatre Company and The New Colony are behind the multi-city world premiere of Evan Linder's drama Byhalia, Mississippi.

Mutt bitingly imagines what might happen if the Republican Party sought out a mixed-race presidential candidate. Of course the candidate would have to be male, and one with an Asian heritage is preferred since they're perceived to be the "model American minority."

Chen's targets are many in Mutt, from strident cable TV talk shows to scathing stereotypes of this county's two main political parties. This gives Mutt the feel almost of a series of interrelated comedy sketches where some are pointedly sharper than others. Chen does offer some astute insights to surface generalizations around race, but he's not always consistent.

If Mutt's comic material is hit-and-miss, at least the diverse cast all throw themselves into their zany and glib characters under the zippy direction of Vanessa Stalling. The superficiality of political campaigns and image spin doctors is also masterfully realized in Paul Deziel's projection design, which is filled with animated gifs that would make any office-seeker shudder.

A much more thoughtful and personal reflection on racial dynamics is drawn by Linder in Byhalia, Mississippi. The drama focuses on the expecting couple of Jim and Laurel Parker ( Linder and Liz Sharpe ), who both joke that they live up to most stereotypes of "Southern white trash."

At first, everything plays like a great comic character study as Jim and Laurel bicker over his past infidelities and job-hunting while both cope with the visit of her mother—a very judgmental Celeste ( Cecelia Wingate ). But things turn serious once Laurel gives birth to a mulatto baby. Jim immediately suspects his close friend, Karl ( Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. ), of impregnating his wife, although community pillar Ayesha ( Kiki Layne ) later arrives to confront the Parkers about the father.

By having his characters face up to this parentage dilemma, Linder masterfully explores issues of race on a very personal level while also showing lingering biases and resentment in America today. Linder also skillfully injects some history into the play just by his choice of setting.

The cast under the watchful eye of director Tyrone Phillips all skillfully sink their teeth into this meaty material and the dramatic results are gripping and very thought-provoking. My only complaint about Byhalia is that Linder might have signposted Celeste's religious fervor earlier in Act I since it almost comes out of nowhere in Act II.

Both plays have much to recommend about them in tackling racial issues of today. But if asked to only choose one, it would have to be Byhalia all the way.

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