Thursday, February 7, 2019

Too Heavy for Your Pocket (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Brief history lesson.  Well, mini-lesson.

Theatre emerged from religion.  In Ancient Greece especially it arose enshrined around worship of the gods, around what we these days call "myth" but in later centuries dubbed "religious stories."  As far as Europe and its colonies go, what we think of as theatre started as morality plays and re-enactments of stories from the Bible or of various saints.  While some might call that an entertaining way of spreading basic theology, more fundamentally it worked as a version of the Sermon on the Mount, of the parables told by Jesus, of making stories "come alive" in the same way the sacrament is recreating the Last Supper.

So theatre was and remains a temple, a church, some kind of holy ground.

Walking into the theatre to see Too Heavy for Your Pocket by Jireh Breon Holder felt very much like entering a church of some different but vaguely familiar denomination.  With the audience on three sides, viewing what appeared to be a rural kitchen complete with dirt floor, I sat in the dark waiting for a ceremony to begin, a ritual showing some truth.

I got exactly that.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
Four people.  Two men.  Two women.  In rural Tennessee sometime in the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders stood up and walked and traveled to demand the justice which American law promised yet so very rarely delivered.  Bozie (Derek Jackson) is a very bright young man, married to the fierce and passionate Evelyn (Jaquita Ta'le).  Their best friends, whose kitchen we see, are Tony (Shane Liburd) and his wife Sally (Kacie Rogers).  In many ways their story is that of any four people with individual issues, past mistakes and future ones, with shared hopes as well as fears, plus unshared ones that lead to conflict.

But like all really fine drama, their story also proves deeply specific, individual, unique--yet we recognize those stories.  Hence the paradox of myth and faith.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
Bozie, who seems our hero, clearly plays the role of clown, and his friends enjoy it.  Truth to tell, they all have wonderful senses of humor.  Yet there's an edge, one we see first in Bozie.  Even as they celebrate his acceptance into college, he has a brief explosion of rage amid his own pride.  What lies behind it?

More, what lies behind that same rage that one by one they all begin to show.  Something deeper than mere poverty, or life's usual struggles.  Tony has been unfaithful to his wife but turned himself around.  Evelyn still feels the searing loss of a pregnancy that ended in a still birth.  Sally holds onto her faith as if it were a life preserver, and after a time it becomes clear she's been clutching at it for a long, long time.

Everything erupts when Bozie mades a decision, one his friends think irresponsible to the point of madness.  He decides to join the Freedom Riders.  Education it seems has made him feel the bite of prejudice all the more sharply, not least seeing the alien world of college.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
In that place, he gazes upon himself, and wants more that an adequate, even successful and happy life.  He wants his life to mean something. 

His struggle is secular, but to me he seemed to be called.  Little wonder his family and friends fear for him.  Is this not the way of the martyr?  Of the human sacrifice, walking into the lion's den? 

Evelyn more than any other feels betrayed, refusing to speak with her husband or even reveal she is again pregnant.  She will not answer the phone lest it be him.  Events prove her fears justified, as Bozie ends up in jail, tortured and abused.  Fallout from his leaving continues, not least as Evelyn seeks to deal with her terror and feelings of desertion.  Sally tries to support her, while dealing with a husband who is definitely keeping secrets from his wife, then offering some emotional support for Bozie who writes to her just to have someone to talk to--and of course Evelyn jumps to the wrong conclusion when she finds out.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
But what I notice, the more I think on the play, was how increasingly that rural kitchen become other locations from the start of the play.  It begins itself, then becomes a bus, a prison, a nightclub, even an outdoor privy and eventually what I think might be some woods.  Each of the four are pushed and pushed and pushed.  No one thing is too hard.  Every single person seems a good person, one trying to do what they can.

Yet the world is bigger than them.  And it demands too much sometimes.  It demands far too much as it happens.  Which is why maybe some are called as Bozie was--and some do become martyrs to the cause.

For the record, Bozie does not.  He is willing in the end, but does not have to.  Someone else becomes a martyr, someone who bore even more.  After all, Bozie fought back.  Others were able to do...well, something.  But Sally, she endured more than life should be.  Because what breaks her is not even her husband's foolish secret-keeping, or Evelyn's pain-driven pride.  It is the lack of dignity.  That whittles you down.  Weighs you down.  Life has enough burdens already, is hard enough.

Sometimes it becomes too heavy, though.  That is the ultimate, most piercing and intimate thing about things like racism of all stripes in all of its ugly-to-behold forms.  It just gets too heavy for a human soul.

That is what makes theatre sacred.  This cast, this writer, this director (Michael A. Shepperd) get that.  Not only truth, but truth than uncovers the soul of the individual, which makes us recognize ourselves in someone else.

Too Heavy For Your Pocket plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until March 2, 2019 at the Broadwater Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd (west of Vine), Hollywood CA 90038.

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