A racially-charged drama set in a small Southern town plays out in unexpected ways.
[Note: Originally mounted at the Den Theatre in January 2016, Byhalia, Mississippi returns for a summer remount at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre with its entire original cast. Time Out’s original review follows.]
Of all life’s significant milestones, the act of bringing a baby into the world may hold the potential to be the most world-rocking. That’s surely the case in Byhalia, Mississippi. A co-production of the New Colony and Definition Theatre Company, the layered drama centers on Jim and Laurel Parker (playwright Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe), a struggling white couple whose lives are upended when the child they were expecting comes out black.
The show’s complex racial overtones and racially-charged historic context (Byhalia was the site of tense boycotts in the 1970s after the likely police-involved killing of a black man) feel particularly relevant considering the state of the country. In fact, the play—winner of the 2014 New Works Competition at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis—is so timely, it’s being performed simultaneously in other cities and will be the subject of an online forum on January 18.
Yet in Chicago’s production, that ripe-for-exploring tension seems to present a missed opportunity. Instead of a simmering-beneath-the-surface build, the larger social issues raised by the Parkers’ situation seem to pop up abruptly in the show’s starkly more poignant and powerful second act.
Fortunately, the actors’ performances feel much less lopsided. While Linder and Sharpe truly hit their stride in the latter half of the show, supporting actors Kiki Layne, Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. and Cecelia Wingate offer a consistent richness that gives the story both the weight and human lightness it deserves throughout. Layne’s subtle internal turmoil and controlled kindness is especially scene-stealing, and the evolution of Linder and Sharpe’s relationship gut-wrenching. It’s not often you see a story of infidelity, betrayal and racial conflict told with such heart.
What Linder’s script and director Tyrone Phillips’s vision do achieve, early-run flubs and logistical questions (how is the incessant yelling and banging not waking the newborn?) aside, is a narrative that feels at once familiar and startlingly unexpected.
The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. By Evan Linder. Directed by Tyrone Phillips. With Linder, Liz Sharpe, Kiki Layne, Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr., Cecilia Wingate. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.