Eileen Morris isn't afraid of a good challenge. As artistic director of The Ensemble Theatre, she already had planned a robust 2018/19 season with five regional premieres. So what's one more hurdle? When the casting for the upcoming production of Too Heavy for Your Pocket was all said and done, she didn't even blink about directing the similarly named actors Kendrick “KayB” Brown and Kedrick Brown.
Written by Jiréh Breon Holder, Too Heavy had a reading in 2016, was first produced in 2017 and now seems hot, hot, hot. "This year alone it’s at four or five different cities being done there. It's almost like its third production run, but all at the same time. We feel really blessed to be able to do its regional premiere," says Morris.
For those who wonder how a playwright so young can write about an era from before he was born, Holder has a secret weapon. "It’s my understanding that he had a really wonderful conversation with his grandmother about what it meant to be during that time and what was happening with the civil rights movement and what was happening with the Freedom Riders," says Morris, about the protests over segregated bus terminals. "He felt an urgency about being able to want to express this in a theatrical format of what the political climate was."
The script shows how the true work of revolution and social change are done through community by way of churches, classrooms and basements. "Freedom of speech is an important aspect of what should be prominent and a reminder that — while the civil rights movement happened in the '60s and '70s, which is 40 or 50 years ago almost — that unfortunately still today we’re dealing with issues [about] social climate in the world," says Morris.
The play opens with two couples in rural Tennessee, longtime friends who have much to celebrate. Sally-Mae Carter (played by Yunina Barbour-Payne) has just finished beauty school, Bowzie Brandon (played by “KayB”) has received a scholarship to Fisk University and the old jalopy has been freshly painted. But whenever there's a shift in group dynamics, change is inevitable.
At school, Bowzie is soon recruited by a civil rights activist. "He gets approached by this person to consider taking up the bandwagon and joining the political fight for justice, the Freedom Riders," says Morris, though his friends and family back home aren't supportive. "They don’t know why he would choose to do that, 'Why don’t you just go to school?'"
Like dominos falling one after another, things soon go from bad to worse. Hence the play's title. "When boys come of age, they are taken to a lake and told to pick up a rock. [They're told], 'Well now that’s your rock,'" says Morris.
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"And you put that rock in your pocket and you take it wherever you go, don’t let it loose," says Morris. "You thank God and you think of one thing you’re thankful for. Even if the whole world turns its back on you, there’s always something you can be grateful for."
Morris says sometimes it can get so bleak that it's hard to think of anything good in your life. "That rock can get so heavy, you can’t figure out what you're grateful for. You’ve got to pick it up and hold it until you remember what it is that you can be thankful for."
The cast includes Kedrick Brown as Tony Carter and LaKeisha Randle as Evelyn Brandon, Bowzie's wife. The drama is rated PG-13, primarily for its use of the "N" word, as well as a few curse words.
Too Heavy for Your Pocket is scheduled for January 24-February 24, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com, $38 to $44.