By Evan Linder
Directed by Tyrone Phillips
Produced by The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company
Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago
Strong Foundation for Conversation across the Continent
It’s a great sign for the future of theatre when two young companies are able to collaborate on an outstanding world premiere. It’s an even better sign when those two companies are ambitious enough to convince other theatre troupes in far-flung cities to join them in launching multiple productions of a new play. Byhalia, Mississippi, by New Colony co-founder and co-artistic director Evan Lindner, is a nuanced, deeply humanistic social drama being performed now in Chicago, Toronto, Memphis (very close to the real Byhalia), and Charleston, South Carolina. But the Chicago production is special because the playwright is playing one of the lead roles, and because it is being directed by Definition Theatre Company founding artistic director Tyrone Phillips, one of the most impressive young talents in the Chicago theatre.
We open with a contentions, but loving relationship between a soon-to-be grandmother and her nine and a half months pregnant daughter. Laurel (Liz Sharpe) says she has a form of stage fright, and arguing with her mother, Celeste (Cecilia Wingate), over everything from the safety of the crib to how Celeste eats bananas isn’t helping. Laurel’s husband, Jim (Evan Linder), who Celeste always considered beneath them, is coming home soon, and Celeste finally admits that she’s stayed too long, and should to return to her home in Jackson. Jim and Laurel get along quite well, and though they’re having some trouble with money, and Jim admitted to cheating on Laurel in the past, she forgave him, and it looks like the baby will be born into a loving, basically normal family.
And then Laurel’s baby turns out to be black. Jim first suspects his lifelong best friend, Karl (Jeffrey Owen Freelon, Jr.), the closest black man at hand, of cuckolding him. Karl maintains his innocence, and Jim is persuaded, but the fact of his humiliation remains. Laurel comes clean: she wanted to get even with Jim, and had sex with her boss, the high school principal. Never considering that the principal might be the father, she kept the baby, and she won’t give it up now. Jim is unforgiving. He explains that, though what he did was wrong, to have been led to believe that he was becoming a father and then having that taken away is far worse. Though Jim and Laurel’s situation could happen anywhere, the specific setting of Byhalia is crucial to how the characters think of themselves, and their suddenly precarious position in society. The principal’s wife, Ayesha (Kiki Lane), is adamant that Laurel not attempt to raise a black son, as is Celeste. Jim and Karl’s friendship is suddenly put under scrutiny, and Laurel, despite her mistakes, refuses to listen to anyone.
Linder’s greatest strength as a writer is the depth he gives his characters, and the actors all fully explore their roles. Sharpe plays Laurel with such an explosive mixture of self-centered pragmatism and self-sacrificing principle that she remains fascinating and ambiguous right up until the end of the play. Even Celeste is troubled by her behavior, for both understandable and reprehensible reasons, and Wingate’s gripping performance captures a mother who is slowly turning against her own child. Linder’s own role is much easier to like and empathize with, but Jim is thoughtless in ways that, over the long term, wear down both the audience and other characters’ patience with him once he’s in serious situations. Ever conscious of the confluence of the personal and political, and grappling over when to push for change and when to be nice, Ayesha lambasts Karl for being so overly-indulgent of his white friend. Freelon’s face as he considers the truth in Ayesha’s accusations is a marvel of non-verbal acting. Phillips has coached his actors well.
Byhalia has a population of 1,300, and has been a flashpoint of racial tension in the past. A constant source of conflict in the play is whether Jim or Laurel should continue to live in the small town at all. Celeste represents those who hypocritically dismiss the town’s residents as backward trash, while Ayesha defends the town from outsiders, despite wanting to leave, herself. It’s remarkable how clear an impression of Byhalia’s dynamics Linder works into a play which has only five characters and takes place entirely in John Wilson’s photorealistic set of a trailer. The artistic team traveled to Byhalia to make sure their representation was reasonable, but the production walks a delicate balance between addressing the dynamics of one place in particular, and broadening out to universal themes.
Part of the World Premiere Conversation Phillips and Linder are pioneering is an online chat with audiences in other cities to take place on January 18 at 7:00 pm, central time. The characters’ discussion over the responsibilities attached to giving and receiving forgiveness, and how they play into the dynamics of their own cities, are sure to resonate with a great many people. Byhalia, Mississippi is a must-see, and one which demands to be talked about.
Reviewed January 11, 2016
This show has been Jeff Recommended.
For more information, see Byhalia, Mississippi’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Den Theatre upstairs mainstage, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $20 with discounts for students and seniors. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through February 21. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.