BWW Review: You Should Visit BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI at CATF
In his recent memoir Dispatches from Pluto, British writer Richard Grant, trying to suss out race relations in the Mississippi Delta region, proposes this formula: "[I]n the South whites didn't mind how close blacks got, so long as they didn't get too high socially and economically, and ... in the North, it was the other way around..." The town of Byhalia, a poor exurb of Memphis, lies one county over from the Delta, and the play to which Evan Linder has given the town's name seems to reflect those same Delta racial dynamics. This might be surprising, because in the annals of civil rights struggles, Byhalia is mainly known for a traumatic moment in 1974 when a police killing of a young black man there ignited lengthy boycotts and protests, referenced in the play. But, at least in 2014, the time of the play, things are much more nuanced, and enough water has flowed under the bridge so that a white character does not even recognize the name of the young black man who was shot.
Byhalia, Mississippi, being presented as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, depicts instead a place where blacks and whites can be close friends or lovers without anyone commenting on it much except when things go really wrong. It's not giving away a great deal to say what goes wrong here, since that cat escapes from the bag in the second scene: interracial adultery leading to an unexpectedly biracial child. And a good deal of the play is given over to what one might call the geographical question: whether the white mother should even attempt to raise such a child in Byhalia. But the bigger question is marital: can the white mother who cheated and her estranged husband (who cheated first) reunite despite all the hurt - and can that husband accept fatherhood under these circumstances? The comic tone throughout suggests how these questions will be resolved, but, as in most romantic stories, getting there is the main fun.
These are not generic romantic characters. The wife, Laurel (Jessica Savage), describes herself as a "redneck momma," and the pejorative label certainly fits her husband Jim (Festival favorite Jason Babinsky) as well. Their story is race- and class-specific. Jim is a weed-smoking, not-really-employed guy who does not look like much of a catch, certainly not what his sardonic Jesus-loving mother-in-law Celeste (Hollis McCarthy) was hoping for for her daughter. Even with Laurel's job as a schoolteacher, she relies on Celeste to pay the power bill. It is a situation Laurel summarizes this way just before the baby is born: "Things are not good Jim!... Things are never going to be good. And you know what?... I'm good with things never being good. I'm fine with it." But of course the revelation of the baby's race and history is bound to destabilize even this already unstable structure of a marriage. If Laurel is going to rescue it from complete collapse, she is going to require a great deal of centeredness and luck - and Jim.
The path back for this couple will bring Jim into uneasy reliance upon his black best friend Karl (Yaegel T. Welch), and Laurel into confrontation with her old black frenemy Ayesha, Laurel's boss's wife (Adrian Kiser). In these encounters, playwright Linder seems to be confirming but also refining Richard Grant's apercu. Face-to-face, the racial differences hardly need to be mentioned and play only a small role in how these characters deal with each other. But the social environment in which these pairs find each other matters a lot. There may not be room enough for someone like Karl to stay friends with someone like Jim. And Ayesha cannot either understand or tolerate the prospect of Laurel raising her black baby in Byhalia. Somehow the challenges posed by Karl and by Ayesha must be met.
It emerges that the strongest card Laurel has to play, with both Ayesha and Jim (and also with her mother) is simply her unflinching determination to stay put in Byhalia. There is no suggestion that there is any magic in Byhalia itself; there may be magic, though, in just staying put and going on with one's life plan, not deviating because of changed circumstances. And of course there is comic magic in keeping the frequently raunchy jokes coming; Linder serves them up like a sitcom writer.
The virtue of Byhalia, Mississippi lies precisely in its modesty. It prescribes no rules, apart from loving one another and telling the truth, for getting through a marital and race-inflected social crisis in a small town; it simply shows how one not-overwhelmingly admirable couple does it. And at that, the true secret here may just be the jokes. Those, and the blackout line at the very end of the play, which just may bring a lump to the throat.
Given the heaviness of many of the other plays in this year's Festival, a comedy was bound to provide a welcome respite. But it's more than simply a respite. Byhalia, unlike most of the other plays here, has already established its bona fides, by going through a four-theater premiere (as well as three other staged readings) in 2016. Making so many different audiences laugh, it must have done so when the need for comic relief was not pressing. It can stand alone.
Some plaudits before departing. The cast, like every Shepherdstown cast, is uniformly outstanding. It was especially interesting seeing McCarthy and Savage playing a mother and daughter, having seen them two days earlier portraying a very different mother and a very different daughter in Chelsea Marcantel's Everything Is Wonderful on the same stage. David M. Barber continues his run as a designer of amazingly detailed sets, with the two-bedroom house on a concrete pad that Jim and Laurel call home. And director Marc Masterson displays a rare talent for getting his cast to elicit laughs with every punch line; if there were any misdelivered ones, I missed them.
Bottom line: Byhalia, Mississippi is definitely worth a visit.
Byhalia, Mississippi, by Evan Linder, directed by Marc Masterson, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival through July 30 at the Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV. Tickets $35-$65, http://catf.org/tickets/, 800.999.CATF or 304.876.3473. Adult language, mild physical confrontation, marijuana and alcohol usage.