Somewhere, I think it was between Act I and II, Jiréh Breon Holder's Too Heavy for Your Pocket (Off-Broadway premiere, 2017) skitters off track. It's not a train wreck, but the ride turns unnecessarily bumpy.
If you don't believe me, listen to the audience at Ensemble Theatre. When a climactic event happens unexpectedly – and out of character – you can hear the murmur of disapproval, the small gasps of incredulity, the tiny titters of unease. Suddenly, characters we have invested in go sour, they do things they wouldn't do, the secrets they've been hiding spew forth in ways these people wouldn't reveal. Holder jars us out of our seat and we never fully get back on board.
Up till then, the ride's been cozy and comfortable, like other kitchen-sink dramas that portray the black experience during the nascent civil rights movement.
But playwright Holder dares to show us something different, a perspective we haven't seen before. His protagonists don't especially approve of what's happening in Selma, in Birmingham in 1961. They are afraid, they are selfish, they want to protect their home, not some grandiose idea. The play begins on an unconventional high.
Only young smart Bowzie (the lithe but powerful Kendrick “Kayb” Brown), offered a scholarship at Nashville's Fisk University, sees injustice. He's going to do something about it. His young pregnant wife Evelyn (Lakeisha Randle – oh, what a singer!) wants him home with her, not protesting. She knows he's going to die. His sister Sally-Mae (Yunina Barbour-Payne), herself newly pregnant and a recent graduate of beauty school, is sympathetic but realizes the dangers, too, but she's more concerned that husband Tony keeps himself at home. Macho Tony with a roving eye (solid Kedrick Brown), illiterate but still wanting the best for his best bro Bowzie, will not talk him out of his mission. Unconsciously, he may want Bowzie out of town. The four characters do a fine gavotte, first one leading, then the other. They are dancing into unknown territory.
Holder performs fine choreography, until he doesn't. The play begins to meander, although the four characters remain center stage. We want them to do the right thing. There are jarring musical interludes – although Randle's “Little Bird” number is exceptionally poignant – and some scenes are letdowns as they're dramatized by the reading of letters instead of made vivid by showing what is happening.
Yet the four actors are mesmerizing no matter what the playwright has them do. Randle is smoky
and volatile; Barbour-Payne exudes fragility and abiding endurance; Kedrick Brown is stolid and full of masculine pride, even though he's keenly aware of his weakness; while Kendrick Brown exudes youth's passion and rawness. He's the most alive of Holder's people: fervent, scared, committed, unyielding to injustice. He's the face of America's future.
Director Eileen Morris performs her usual magic, letting the drama flow naturally. Everybody wipes their feet before entering Sally-Mae and Tony's little Nashville home, wonderfully rendered by designer Liz Freese. Grass has encroached into the house in patches. Sally/Tony and Evelyn/Bowzie's children, the next generation, will not have such rural flooring.
While not completely satisfying, Holder's play holds many surprises and riches. With an unconventional view of history, this young playwright from the Yale School of Drama is going places. We look forward to more plays with his unique vision.
Too Heavy for Your Pocket continues through February 24 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $33 - $44.