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Review: Theatre Works' BYHALIA, MS Plays 'the Race Card' - But There Are Others Up Its Sleeve

Evan Linder's BYHALIA, MS, a winner of the 2014 NewWorks@The Works Playwriting Competition, came about at an interesting time. I had recently heard an interview on NPR featuring Alabama-born Walton Goggins, currently co-starring in Quintin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Goggins, a gifted actor, made the point that he did not wish to perpetuate the tired old "let's paint Southerners as uneducated rednecks" point of view that all too often emerges in Hollywood films about the subject; having appreciated his point, I was initially wary of a work about racism entitled BYHALIA, MS. The South, and Mississippi in particular, are easy "punching bags' for liberals; and yes, the historical past can surely produce numerous examples. There's no way, I thought, that Evan Linder should ever run for Mayor of Byhalia, a small Mississippi town not far from Memphis. However, after seeing the play, I realized that I was guilty of preconceived notions and misconceptions -- a shortcoming shared by black and white characters alike in Mr. Linder's probing, ambitious work.

The opening scene in no way prepares the audience for what is to come. Pregnant "Laurel," on leave of absence from her teaching job at the local high school, has found herself resigned to a life in a small town she despises; yet, because it is the home of her can't-hold-a-job,pot-smoking husband "Jim," she has accepted her situation. She chafes at the hovering presence of her concerned, church-going mother "Celeste," anxious about the upcoming birth of her first grandchild. She is more than ready for Celeste to pack her bags and return to her home, three hours away in Jackson. Their bickering elicits both tension and humor, as Jim, eavesdropping on the baby monitor while getting high on the roof, listens in. All of this leads one to expect a stereotypical depiction of what is to come. However, once the child is born -- black -- all expectations take unexpected turns, and Mr. Linder keeps jerking the dramatic rug from beneath the feet of not only his characters, but the audience.

The play isn't simple. Characters' gut reactions betray their own shortcomings. Jim thinks that his black friend from childhood, "Karl," is the father. He jumps to a wrong conclusion, but in doing so, plants a festering thought in his friend's head. "Ayesha," Laurel's black girlhood friend, shakes Laurel out of her racial complacency by reminding her of her failure to come to her defense when she was a victim of racism. Even within their own race, Karl and Ayesha will clash, as he accuses her of social climbing and she retaliates by demeaning him as "Uncle Karl." In short, the birth of the child will force each character to undergo a "trial by fire" and assess his or her shortcomings -- as well as his or her relationship to the other characters.

While it has some powerful encounters (Mr. Linder likes to mix and match pairs of characters), a few scenes seem overly extended.. What works for the play also, at times, works against it. I like the fact that the play wants to examine not just racism, but relationships between parents and children, husband and wife, and long-time friendships. However, there's a sense that the play throws almost too much at the audience; it's too discursive at times.

Does the small town of Byhalia emerge as a hotbed of philistinism and racial discrimination? No more so, I think, than any other town in the United States. With this in mind, it's interesting to see who stays and who goes. Byhalia is simply a microcosm; it is as representative of us as a nation as is "Grovers Corners" in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN.

Does the play work? Let me just say this: I attended it with a former theatre instructor and director, and Mr. Linder would have probably delighted in the spirited debate that followed. (I liked the ending of the play; he felt it should have ended earlier. I liked the choice that Lauren makes at the end of the play; he felt she should have listened to Ayesha.) In short, you will leave the theatre with much to ponder.

Director John Maness, as I have noted in earlier reviews, is right at home with this kind of material; and he has a committed, hard-working cast (all of them have special moments -- Celeste's are full of irony and self-righteousness, and she is the character who represents racism at its ugliest, despite the fact that at one point she grudgingly agrees to feed the baby). Jillian Barron and Evan McCarley are the damaged but loving couple, Gail Black is the anxious and anxiety-provoking mother, and Marc Gill (a fine musical performer who at least is allowed a verse or two to sing here) has some powerful moments as Jim's friend Karl. Especially noteworthy is the poised and peerless Jessica "Jai" Johnson as "Ayesha," whose blistering scene with Ms. Barron at the opening of Act II is one of the best written in the play. Through January 31.

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From This Author - Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from 1971 until 2007. When I retired, I was Chairman... (read more about this author)