Too Heavy for Your Pocket at New Horizon features engaging, talented cast but fails to take advantage of its historical backdrop

By February 14, 2020 No Comments

By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic

New Horizon Theater presents the 2017 play Too Heavy for Your Pocket written by Jiréh Breon Holder, one of the contemporary theater’s up-and-coming playwrights, and directed by New Horizon stalwart Herb Newsome.

The play is set Nashville in 1961. We’re in the “poor but honest” home of Sally-Mae and Tony Carter, specifically their kitchen, replete with stove, fridge and sink. (Pay attention to that sink, it’s important.)

Sally-Mae is several months along in her first pregnancy and has just graduated beautician school. Tony is the loving and recently “reformed” husband (his dark past and subsequent getting’-right-with-the-Lord are referred to obliquely throughout the play.)

Too Heavy For Your Pocket continues through February 23. Falk School, Oakland. 412/431-0773.

Their best friends (who stop by so often you’d think they were homeless) are actually a few steps up the economic ladder. Evelyn Brandon is a professional singer in Nashville and her husband, Bowzie, is just about to enroll at Fisk University, a historically black university in the area.

But once on campus, Bowzie falls in with a group of civil rights activists and becomes a Freedom Rider — the legendary group of black and white activists challenging the segregation policies of interstate travel in the South.

That’s some of what happens in Too Heavy for Your Pocket but if you would ask me what the play’s “about” I’m not really sure I can tell you. Maybe it’s just me but when you put one of the most significant Civil Rights events of the 20th century in your play, then that would be the logical focus.

But Holder apparently doesn’t share my view. The Freedom Rides are, for the most part, background noise in Too Heavy. Even when, in the second act, we follow Bowzie into prison in Mississippi (where most of the Riders ended up), Holder keeps his attention, and ours, on something else.

What Holder has done is write an old-fashioned (some might say very old fashioned) kitchen-sink drama. For those who don’t know, Kitchen Sink Drama began life as a term in the 50’s to describe a particular kind of British play focusing on the urban working poor, notable for the supposed realism of its milieu. (The sets for those plays were so “real” the sinks in the kitchen actually worked.)

The term has evolved over the years to become a sometimes less-than-flattering description of plays and TV shows hiding a lack of substance behind fussy, surface-only activity. Soap operas are perhaps the best example of kitchen sink drama.

And, ultimately that’s what Holder has written – a soap opera. Okay, maybe not an actual soap opera, but Too Heavy is mostly concerned with men-in-crisis and long-suffering wives. There’s past infidelities and current missteps, scenes of rapprochement and forgiveness and the unanswerable question of “is love enough?” And all this is happening with the huge social upheavals of the early 60’s happening off-stage.

The curious thing about Too Heavy is that it could be set at any time since the plot of the story has little to do with the time period. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement seems to be presented as a slight plot complication; Bowsie’s ride on the bus is little more than an inconvenience to his wife. I kept wondering if this was Holder’s point – have we bathed the 60’s in such a rosy nostalgia that we need to be reminded that, like today, there were lots of folks who didn’t sacrifice and looked down on people who did? But if that’s Holder’s message he needs to develop it in a much, much, much more obvious way.

Newsome has managed to side-step some of these problems by assembling a engaging, talented cast and giving this New Horizon production a breezy, entertaining feel. Newsome’s direction is rooted in highlighting the kitchen sink elements – the challenges of people just trying to get through the day – and his four-person cast brings conviction and a relaxed sense of naturalism to the proceedings.

Hope Anthony, Jadah Johnson, Brenden Peifer and Maurice Redwood play the drama squarely with a great deal of integrity, never condescending to the material. While the nature and purpose of Holder’s grand design is elusive, he has a very deft hand creating fresh, unforced dialogue and this cast does remarkable work making that happen onstage. And, as a bonus, Holder gives them a terrific comedy scene where they gently lampoon a church service and the four are side splitting.

I’m not sure that I understand what Holder is trying to accomplish with Too Heavy or My Pocket, but there’s no question there’s good things on his horizon.

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