Enter American Stage and Patrick Jackson's class on African-American Theatre Legacy. A class I had thought would provide an interesting perspective on American theater has taken on a sense of urgency with the murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations that occurred in its aftermath. After all, art does provide a lens into the culture in which it is produced.
One of the highlights has been the class featuring playwright Jireh Breon Holder, author of "Too Heavy for Your Pocket." Quite coincidentally, I recently saw an excellent reading/performance of the play on Play-Per-View. (I know, I know, I just said these performances weren't doing it for me. Still, there are some gems.) But reading the play and having the chance to hear from Holder provided an opportunity to really think about the issues raised and deepened the experience.
|Playwright Jireh Breon Holder|
Holder shared that the story grew from two personal experiences. The first was a conversation he had with his grandmother about the Civil Rights marches. Why, he asked, had she not marched? The answer was simple -- because her job was to raise her family. The second was Holder's own conflicted feelings about not leaving school in 2014 to join the Black Lives Matter movement. Participation, he realized, is a sacrifice in and of itself. Who can afford to take real time off from their lives to protest -- leaving their jobs and families behind -- and who is willing to do that? In Bowzie, Holder found a character who was compelled to answer the call.
Still, the idea wasn't one that Bowzie came on by himself. At Fisk, he meets a wide array of Black students from across the country, including some with wealthy backgrounds. They persuade him to leave college and join the protests. As we learn, it's an entirely different situation for young people of means to go on a Freedom Ride and get arrested than for Bowzie. With parents who can easily make bail, the well-off students could protest and then return to their lives. Not so for Bowzie, who finds himself in jail -- and then Parchman Penitentiary -- for months praying Evelyn, Tony and Sally can somehow raise the money to get him out. Participation comes with different price tags.
|Lunch Counter Sit-In|
"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is filled with moments that provide a window into the Black experience. Still, it's easy to miss things when watching a performance that come into sharp relief when you have a script in hand. For instance, in the reading, Sally's complaint about having to leave a store to find a "box" to tinkle in passed me by as a colloquialism. I clearly wasn't listening closely enough. As it turns out, Sally was talking about an actual cardboard box set up as a place where Blacks could use the bathroom. Public restrooms were, of course, restricted to use by white customers.
Here's what Sally says about her experience, "I passed all those clothes. I passed the restroom, I passed the diner counters. I walked out of the store. I walked all the way down Church Street to the alley. To that box.... I wish there was a Freedom Ride for those boxes. They hopping on air conditioned buses complaining about where they get to sit when my daughter might have to watch her mama squat like a dog over a box 'cause ain't no Colored restrooms on Church Street. Like a dog. Without an ounce of dignity. That's what it was..." It's a shocking and sad piece of segregation history I'd never heard before. Holder himself only learned about this practice recently. And yet what facilities did I think were available to these citizens? And that's just it -- I didn't think.
Thanks to American Stage and Jackson for introducing me to "Too Heavy for Your Pocket." And to Holder for taking the time to talk with us. May we all pay a bit more attention to the world around us.