Credit: Kenny Nakai, Nakai Photography

Eminently engaging and candid, Too Heavy for Your Pocket, now at TimeLine and directed by Ron OJ Parson, is an intimate look at two working-class African American couples living on the fringes of the civil rights movement in Tennessee. Full of joy and humor, singing and crying, this multifaceted story opens in 1961 as Sally Mae (Jennifer Latimore) is about to graduate from college. Her husband, Tony (Cage Sebastian Pierre), and best friends Bowzie (Jalen Gilbert) and Evelyn (Ayanna Bria Bakari) have come to share the celebration.

Bowzie has his own good news. He has a scholarship to Fisk University and is now faced with the anxiety of setting aside his country-boy ways and venturing to an unfamiliar place populated with the “kids of lawyers.” While at school, Bowzie decides to join the Freedom Riders and fight racism in the deep south, hoping—for once—to make a difference. But his decision to abandon his wife and their friends sends shockwaves through all their lives, especially since they are the ones left to deal with the consequences.

Emerging playwright Jiréh Breon Holder has woven a compelling story with flawed characters, each of whom bears the weight of the impact of Bowzie’s actions in his or her own way. However, it is the exceedingly powerful acting and directing that elevate this production. Bakari delivers a stellar performance, embodying a woman in turmoil; she shines in several songs, including one about a bird with a broken wing, a clear metaphor. Latimore is outstanding and funny as the steadfast wife and friend whose sacrifices and ability to hold families together go unnoticed until she cries, “I want a Freedom Ride for me!” Gilbert exemplifies Bowzie’s rollercoaster of moods: singing and joking, yet still revealing internal struggles with explosions of frustration.

Parson balances the ebb and flow of harmony and conflict of the first half, while mitigating the main flaw in the second half, where some conversations happen through phone calls and letters. His direction emphasizes the simplicity of the story, using the elements of air and water to build a foundation for the production. Deep breaths bookend the play and water plays a central role in both quenching thirst and baptizing a character who emerges anew.

Too Heavy dips its toe into issues of racism and civil rights, but it swims more deeply in everyday issues of marital fidelity, sacrifice, responsibility to friends and family, and fulfillment of one’s own dreams. It’s delightful to see a play that is at once simple and yet produces such profound change for all its characters. With an engaging, interactive lobby display about the Freedom Riders and civil rights movement, TimeLine reminds us that there is always a battle to achieve freedom—and how important that still is 60 years later.   v