Theater review by Helen Shaw
The first several scenes of Jiréh Breon Holder's new historical drama are strangely sweet; they're cloying, close to camp. Can any couple be as blissed-out as soon-to-be college student Bowzie (Brandon Gill) and his songbird wife, Evelyn (Eboni Flowers)? Does any husband kvell the way Tony (Hampton Fluker) does over his pregnant Sally-Mae (Nneka Okafor)? Margot Bordelon directs the quartet with a clinging gaze; we spend the play's first long moment just watching Bowzie breathe in and out. Even hints of strangeness, like the grass that carpets the set's 1960s kitchen, accentuate the play's syrupy warmth: We're lost in someone's happy dream.
But Too Heavy for Your Pocket is set in Nashville, in 1961. Bowzie, alone of the four, can hear the Civil Rights Movement's distant rumble, and he joins the Freedom Riders without consulting his (understandably) irate wife. Fear and tension begin to distort the foursome's bond, and when Bowzie is thrown in jail it yanks his mind off course. Even in this stronger second section of the play, Holder can oversugar his characters—the domestic quarrels approach soapiness—and Bordelon has the actors perform broadly, which can be startling in a space as small as the Roundabout Underground. (Gill is particularly muggy.) But Okafor has a beautiful quality of stern patience, which carries us through the more sentimental sequences. She seems to age before our eyes, her happiness turning into a deep, steady disappointment. Sally-Mae sees the future coming, and it's full of labor and pain.
Roundabout Underground (Off Broadway). By Jiréh Breon Holder. Directed by Margot Bordelon. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission. Through Nov 19.
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