Review: “Byhalia, Mississippi” (The New Colony & Definition Theatre)

Cecelia Wingate, Liz Sharpe/Photo by Joe Mazza
Cecelia Wingate, Liz Sharpe/Photo by Joe Mazza

Show: Byhalia, Mississippi

Company: The New Colony & Definition Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 6

Representing authentic characters on stage is hard work.  Just generally.  Creating authentic characters from a region that is often treated to stereotyping and near parody when presented on Northern stages is remarkable work.  Evan Linder’s “Byhalia, Mississippi” is a very real look at the people of Northern Mississippi (the part a stone’s throw from Tennessee and Arkansas).  It’s a corner of the country that many from the Midwest would look down upon as being populated by racist hillbillies.  And, sure, there have been racial issues in that area, and still are.  But, that’s true here in Chicago, too.  One of the beautiful things about this play is that it addresses a plethora of social and political issues, but does so subtly by focusing on the characters and making them as real as possible.

Back when I was in grad school for playwriting, one of my professors maintained that no matter what else was true about your script, none of it mattered without the characters.  Well drawn characters can tell just about any story and make it moving.  Addressing issues makes something a platform, creating characters makes it a play.  Linder would have aced that professor’s class.  His characters are real people.  They have real problems.  They have real feelings.  They speak in very real cadences that bring the viewer into the world of the play.  This is a really well-crafted work.

When that script with great characters is then put on the stage with great care, you get a show like this one, which is surely the best that I’ve seen in a while, not just in the brief beginnings of 2016.

Liz Sharpe, Evan Linder/Photo: Joe Mazza
Liz Sharpe, Evan Linder/Photo: Joe Mazza

When entering the Den’s upstairs main stage, one has to walk across a sliver of the gravel path up to the house of Jim and Laurel Parker (played by Linder and Liz Sharpe, respectively).  This is a momentary, tactile introduction to the physical environment created by John Wilson’s set.  The house is clearly not part of an upper-class existence, and it helps define the characters before we even meet them.  Jim and Laurel are struggling.  Laurel’s mother Celeste (Cecelia Wingate) is the first person we meet who regularly points that out.  But, it is evident from the get-go.  So, at lights-up, this is a play about class struggle.  Poor, working people trying to make it in a world that is trying to keep them down.  Laurel is pregnant.  Sharpe’s movement work captures the carriage of a woman atop her due date accurately enough that those who have been with child, or those who have lived with a woman ready to be done with their pregnancy, may have difficulty telling that she isn’t really in a motherly way.

Celeste doesn’t care for Jim, and isn’t quite about it.  So, now we have a play about family dynamics.  Also, Celeste is not of the lower class, and didn’t raise her daughter to be.  And now, we have a play not only about class struggle, but class conflict.  For much of the first scene, that is what the play appears to be.  But, then there’s a sharp turn that takes us down a new road.  Laurel gives birth (off stage, thankfully).  We don’t see her or the child for a while.  Instead, we see Jim come home in despair.  His best friend Karl (Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr.) has been decorating the house for the baby’s arrival. Almost as soon as he’s through the door, Jim attacks Karl.  You see, Karl is a black man, and the child that came from Laurel’s womb is black, not white like Jim.  So, now we have a play about infidelity.  A play about race.  A play about betrayal.  But, most importantly, it is at this moment that the seeds of the play’s real arc are planted. This is really a play about forgiveness: seeking it, wanting it, giving it, withholding it, rejecting it.  Each of these characters has opportunity to forgive and be forgiven.  This isn’t a religious thing.  It is a personal one that resonates at a most basic level.

Evan Linder, Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr./Photo: Joe Mazza
Evan Linder, Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr./Photo: Joe Mazza

Director Tyrone Phillips guides his cast through all of the surround issues deftly.  Each is touched upon in ways that indicate how much an inherent part of life they are, without employing a moral sledgehammer to talk about them.  From the moment the baby is born, myriad issues around the topic of race come to the fore.  Ayesha (Kiki Layne) is the wronged wife whose husband fathered Laurel’s baby.  She directly raises the issue of white privilege when comparing her life and Laurel’s.  She also addresses assumed racial roles by calling Karl an Uncle Tom, a move which shifts his perspective, rocks his world, and has massive repercussions on all the characters’ lives.

This is complex stuff.  Everything is there all the time, the tough issues are just under the surface of every moment, and they come through with regularity, but through skillful direction, the play never slams into an issue with enough force to derail the action.  At one point there is a stutter-step in the flow, as the audience audibly reacts to Celeste’s declaration that she is not racist.  However, outside of that, the underlying issues propel the story and leave topics for thought and discussion in the minds of the audience members.  That’s a huge accomplishment.  I don’t need to be slammed over the head about most of the problems in “Byhalia, Mississippi”.  I need to care about the characters, to see their struggles as real, and to see realistically how they are all affected by the issues at hand.

Do I come away thinking about the racial problems in the rural south?  Yes.  But, I come away with perspective on how they affected a small group of individuals.  Some of whom are ready to forgive each other for their mutual sins.  Some who will be ready someday.  And some who will never forgive.  And because they struggle with a very personal and very real issue of forgiveness, this becomes a play that I cannot forget.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: How, when, and why do you choose to forgive someone?

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”