”Too Heavy for Your Pocket” charts the human costs of the civil rights struggle

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"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 19, 2019

George Street Playhouse latest offering is a must see

Many plays and movies have charted the struggles of those involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Few have focused on the stresses placed on those whose loved ones took part in the marches and the freedom rides of that era. George Street Playhouse closes out its 2018-2019 season with one of these rare plays, Jiréh Breon Holder’s Too Heavy for Your Pockets. It is a play of power and honesty and thus is a play that must be seen.

"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 19, 2019
“Too Heavy for Your Pocket” is presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 19, 2019

It’s the summer of 1961 in Nashville, Tennessee. Sally-Mae Carter (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is graduating from beauty school. Her childhood friend Bowzie Branson (Donnell E. Smith) has been accepted to Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. Sally-Mae, Bowzie, Tony (Landon G. Woodson), Sally-Mae’s husband and Bowzie’s best friend, and Evelyn (Felicia Boswell), Bowzie’s wife, are celebrating the occasions along with Sally-Mae’s pregnancy.

A scene from "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" at George Street Playhouse
A scene from “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” at George Street Playhouse

In the weeks that follow, Bowzie learns about the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses from Washington, DC, intending to reach New Orleans only to be stopped in Jackson, Mississippi. A new Freedom Ride is planned from Nashville through Jackson to New Orleans. Bowzie’s decision to take a leave from college and join the Riders upsets the others. Sally-Mae, Tony, and Evelyn’s misgivings are worsened when Bowzie is imprisoned in Mississippi. Misunderstandings and secrets only exacerbate their tensions, creating divisions among the former friends.

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Mr. Holder’s play is well-served by the sensitive direction of LA Williams and the talented cast. While at first the impression is that Bowzie is the focus of the play, it is Sally-Mae who is revealed as the emotional, moral, and sometimes judgmental center of the show. Joniece Abbott-Pratt is excellent in the role, conveying a dazzling spectrum of emotions yet never giving less than a brutally honest portrayal of her character. In this she is closely matched by Landon G. Woodson’s Tony, a flawed but decent man whose late working hours are met with suspicion by his wife, conscious of his past infidelities.

A scene from "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" at George Street Playhouse
A scene from “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” at George Street Playhouse

Felicia Boswell’s Evelyn is an earthy mix of passion and wisdom, forming an equally honest counter-balance to Sally-Mae. While Donnell E. Smith’s Bowzie comes alive when interacting with the other characters, in scenes when he is alone in his prison cell he is less emotionally powerful, making his descent into frustration and despair less compelling.

While George Street’s production team is mostly up to its usual standards, the sound quality of the actors’ miking is poor, particularly in the early part of the first act, making for muddy sections of dialogue. Special mention goes to musical director and vocal coach Nat Adderly Jr., himself a noted jazz arranger and composer, and the original background music of Chris Lane. Composer Ian Scot and lyricist Jiréh Breon Holder have come up with an original blues number, “Evelyn’s Song”, performed late in the show.

A scene from "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" at George Street Playhouse
A scene from “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” at George Street Playhouse

Too Heavy for Your Pocket shows a hidden side of the civil rights story in America. Gripping the audience strongly, it is an honest portrayal of the costs behind the civil rights movement. George Street Playhouse closes out its two seasons at its temporary location on Rutgers’ Cook College campus on a dramatically high note. For a powerfully human experience in the theatre, I strongly recommend you see Too Heavy for Your Pocket.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket is presented by the George Street Playhouse on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick through May 19, 2019. For tickets and information, visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.