BWW Review: TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET Weighs on the Heart at THE ENSEMBLE
It's February 2019 and many theatre companies are celebrating Black History Month. Now I must admit this is the time that I tend to avoid going to see black theatre because I am so tired of the slave story or the typical "woe-as me" narrative showing black people as people as desperate and the typical "step and fetch it" types. I was immediately drawn to the title TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. That is a weighted titled, pun intended. The Ensemble Theatre sets off February with Jiréh Breon Holder's play TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET.
Within the tapestry of American Drama there a strong list of Civil Rights plays as well as other plays that tackle social injustices, sexism, and sexuality. Holders play holds true to trying times of the early 1960s but his exquisite storytelling and Yale training shined brightly in this playwright's masterclass. The story takes place in the early 1960s in Memphis, Tennessee. Negros were moving and they were looking for more. Tony (Kedrick Brown) is the uneducated day laborer who has his blemishes but he wants to make a life for his family. His youthful wife Sally-Mae Carter (Yunina Barbour-Payne) has graduated from beauty school and is expecting her first child with Tony. We are then introduced to their friends Bowzie Brandon (Kendrick "KayB" Brown) and his wife Evelyn (LeKeisha Randle). Bowzie is young, optimistic and full of vigor and newly enrolled at Fisk University and his wife Evelyn is the bread-winning nightclub singer who's trying to find the meaning of family. We've seen shows with the setting like this, we often call them kitchen-sink dramas and I have to admit I love how this story started. Yes, it's different! The conflict may not be introduced early on, but I liked the playwright's finesse and how he baited and switched us. Now to some, this could be a deal breaker, but we've seen these stories and they become predictable. I refuse to give away any spoilers with this review but I'll try to tantalize the taste buds with hopes of you making your way down to The Ensemble to witness this production directed by Eileen Morris.
When a script is written well, the job of the director and actor becomes easier. I enjoyed each actor's performance in this small ensemble piece. I love works like this because you can't hide behind the spectacle of the theatre and no grandiose visuals to take your mind off of what could be horrible acting. Each actor held his and her own. As I write this review and breakdown the elements of this play I have to say that this show should be categorized as a play with music. There were a few moments when cast sang harmoniously and of course I can't forget the incomparable Billie Holiday-esque performance by LaKiesha Randle. Kedrick Brown's machismo was expertly displayed and not hyper-masculine. The acting in this piece is superb and visceral. Yunina Barbour-Payne approaches her character Sally-Mae with an astute naivety that was genius. Kendrick "KayB" Brown's jovial yet intransigent delivery was delectable. LaKiesha Randle by far delivered the breakout performance in this production. Her attention to detail in her acting was breathtaking. From comedic nuances to her gut-punching dramatic moments I would definitely come back to see her in this role again. All in all, this is an All-Star cast with an ability to abound driven by an expertly penned script.
As the show moves there's definitely a strange feeling in the air. Especially if you're a writer, you are waiting for the conflict to be introduced. Now I have to say this took a little longer than I thought but this was a brilliant device used by the playwright. We invested more into each character without bias. Now as this conflict is introduced the relationships are tested and many bonds are broken. Bowzie wants to embark on a pilgrimage that would test the sanctity of his marriage with Evelyn as well as his friendship with Tony and Sally-Mae.
This play is right for our time. As people of color, we live a life of choice. We can be members of the audience or we can get up and participate. In TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET, Bowzie's character has gone through life being an audience member and it was at his time at Fisk University he met others who were tired of going through life as spectators. These young college students joined the Freedom Riders. In 1961 The Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the segregated south. The United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional in 1946 in the cases of Morgan v. Virginia and in 1060 on Boynton v. Virginia. This ruling wasn't observed by many southern states and there was no disciplinary action taken, so blacks and their allies began the Freedom Riders.
This play is socially relevant to the times we live in now. In 2019 our country is as racially divided as the times of the Civil Rights era. There might not be blatant segregation but divisive rhetoric has been the catalyst to this divide. Watching this play you ask yourself where do I stand? Am I a spectator or a player in this pivotal moment in our world? Am I the one who believes that silence is golden? Or do I use my voice to embark change?
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) 2019 theme for Black History month is: Black Migrations emphasizes the movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities. This play is befitting to this year's theme and definitely a great reflection of the continued momentum of blacks in the fabric of American history. I highly encourage you to celebrate what was known as Negro History Week founded by Carter G. Woodson at The Ensemble. TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET plays now until February 24, 2019, at The Ensemble Theatre.
For more information please visit www.ensemblehouston.com.