TimeLine Theatre's 'Too Heavy for Your Pocket' weighs obligation against freedom in a found family
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
TimeLine Theatre is the definition of living history. Whenever I have frequented their space, it manages to transcend time through their transformative sets, intricately designed surroundings, and immersive dramaturgical lobby activities. The power of live theatre, right?
Jiréh Breon Holder's Too Heavy for Your Pocket falls in line impeccably to TimeLine's honored tradition of telling past stories that feel as refreshing and modern of the headlines we scroll past on various timelines. Holder's work comes hot off an Off-Broadway run with Roundabout Theatre and this marks its Chicago premiere following a reading of this work in progress last year.
A two act poignant drama centering on two young couples during the Civil Rights Era that clocks in at two hours and thirty minutes including intermission could seem intimidating, even tiresome. But Too Heavy... chugs along, circling back from emotional arcs established early on that once you return it's full steam ahead into complex arguments and shocking spins on traditional plot devices. This is also a play where the importance of breath is stressed as each character fears at different points it could be their last. The dwelling in calm, languid waters of Act I earns more appreciation in retrospect as Act II harbors on relentless, gridlocked anguish.
Well deserved leading man, Jalen Gilbert (Bowzie), is the hope on which this world stands. His professional life is in need of a jump, but his personal life is booming with a small, support group. Sally Mae (Jennifer Latimore), who you'd swear was his sister upon introduction, is a dear friend proving how phenomenal their dynamic is. Pregnant beautician Sally is married to car repair man Tony (Cage Sebastian Pierre) who could charm the pants off anyone. The electrifying Evelyn (Ayanna Bria Bakari) is a nightclub singer and Bowzie's wife. These four have a well-established familial dynamic, masterfully shaped by director Ron OJ Parson.
Bowzie (Gilbert) prepares to walk with a bit more pride in his stride as he's been accepted into a university program on full scholarship, the first to attend in their neighborhood. But there's a catch---he receives the scholarship upon completion of summer remedial courses, a price to pay in exchange for a life-changing opportunity. The range of literacy and connection to wealth is well documented with Bowzie and Sally having benefited from educational opportunities and Tony (who stopped going to school at age 10) and Evelyn in works of trade. Bowzie also comments on his struggle to fit in on campus among rich black students who come from doctors and lawyers.
The strings that Bowzie has in connection to the others tug at first ever so gently, and threaten to snap altogether when he announces he's decided to withdraw from school. He instead chooses to join the Freedom Riders, a group of white and colored peaceful protesters who rode on buses throughout Alabama advocating for racial integration. It sets Act II into a tailspin as he reflects on this pivotal choice on the road while the other three must adjust to their own new routines in wake of Bowzie's decision.
Act I demonstrates the everlasting capacity this ensemble has for lived in humor, uplifting music directed and composed by Jermaine Hill, and reckless joy without consequences. Act II only heightens the emotional landscape, and each actor truly brings their A-game making these lovable characters layered and impossible to forget. Gilbert builds his journey of an anxious, put upon swagger for appearances upstart to a crumbling, but not yet destroyed fighter who's determined to die having tried till his last breath. Tony (Pierre) could be ridden off as a morally questionable drifter, but sneaks in slivers of potential redemption to right past wrongs.
Bakari and Latimore are each power forces by their own strengths. The best scene of the entire play belongs to them and is sheer perfection as the two reconcile with marriage, children, and how to shape their futures. Latimore shakes but perseveres through tears in an insanely gripping monologue, "I want a freedom ride, Evelyn. Where's my goddamn freedom?" Her inquisition pulsates and strikes a chord so deep that rings loud today often unanswered. Bakari is a lightning bolt herself, and doesn't shy away from expressing similar fears with determination they must overcome together. It's extremely touching to hear how these two women blossomed as friends and witness this beautiful bond be reborn in one scene.
Too Heavy for Your Pocket sparks greatness across many territories. What could have been a simple set incorporates nature seeping inside the walls and underground by José Manuel Díaz-Soto. Every outfit that Bakari and Latimore don are sharp, envious pieces that you'll wish you could pull off as glamorously from the design of Alexia Rutherford. And to not credit the dramaturgy within the text and on display in the lobby of TimeLine of Regina Victor and Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel would be a disservice for such a historically engined story. The culmination results in a production that's lively, heartwarming and offers many interpretations of what it means to make a difference.