The 1960s inform Jireh Breon Holder’s “Too Heavy For Your Pocket” in two distinct ways.
Holder sets his play in that cauldron of a decade, the early, JFK part of it when civil rights activity percolated beyond speeches and court challenges to direct, non-violent demonstrations. They range from rallies and marches to the 1961 Freedom Ride that took volunteers from Tennessee to Louisiana seeking to extend the equality promised in America’s founding documents to African-Americans living in the Deep South.
One of Holder’s four characters, seemingly the most lighthearted and frivolous, unexpectedly asserts his awakening maturity by boarding the Freedom bus in his native Nashville. His experiences and adventures, including a stay in a Mississippi penitentiary, provide the most poignant and eye-opening moments in Holder’s piece.
The remaining 80 percent of “Too Heavy For Your Pocket,” at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse through Sunday, May 19, relies on domestic situations that seem devised more for fomenting high dudgeon than to move Holder’s story forward.
This barrage of household slights, disagreements, and infidelities gives Holder’s play a 1960s sensibility, melodramatic scene heaped upon melodramatic scene. The result is a mixed effect that renders “Too Heavy For Your Pocket” a collection of big moments and raw emotion that frequently offers more intensity than substance.
The George Street cast, particularly Joniece Abbott-Pratt as a woman who wants to create the simplest of happy homes, makes the most of these scenes. The actors can handle the fever pitch that is part of just about every sequence and establish a sense of genuineness about their individual angsts, complaints, trials, and plights. They keep you involved in “Too Heavy For Your Pocket” but cannot hide that Holder’s script remains elemental and on the surface, even when events from the Freedom Ride are the focus.
The text touches on a lot and contains a stirring phrase or speech on occasion, but it rarely rises above the basic, and its emphasis on the marital conflicts of its characters subtracts from a view of African-American life at a pivotal time.
“Too Heavy For Your Pocket” is about freedom on various personal levels. At its best, it jolts you with the jolts its characters encounter daily — having to walk a distance from Nashville stores to relieve themselves at what is basically a latrine, not being considered for jobs or getting paid less for them, being confined to certain professions, and being jailed for exposing and protesting injustice.
Amid the welter of domestic hurts and squabbles, Holder reveals vestiges of prejudice and unfairness that trigger anger similar to that expressed by the characters. He shows how petty insults and rebuffs combine with blatant acts to wear down the strongest of personalities.
These are the moments that sustain “Too Heavy For Your Pocket” from the ordinariness in most of its scenes.
Among specific high points are each character defining what he or she wants, which amounts to his or her vision of a kind of freedom and the vehicle he or she must take to find it. That includes Freedom Rider, Bowzie Buchanan Brown’s, descriptions of his life on the road and in prison.
A truly outstanding moment comes when Felicia Boswell, as Evelyn Brandon, Bowzie’s wife who makes their living entertaining at a Nashville bar, delivers a jazz riff in which she likens herself to a bird with a broken wing. It’s original to “Too Heavy For Your Pocket” and by Jireh Breon Holder and Ian Scot.
Evelyn’s number, called “Evelyn’s Song,” was a dash of thrilling art and metaphor in a play that gets so heavy at times, it drags itself to the ground, as if governed Holder’s title.
The domestic scenes are where the problems lie. Abbott-Pratt’s character, Sally-Mae, is totally sympathetic until you realize she cannot listen to, or distinguish, sincerity and seems to act irrationally despite her achieving a college degree and showing signs she loves the husband she comes to mistrust and spurn.
Evelyn also overdoes her resentment that Bowzie would leave their home to risk his life as a Freedom Rider, a role Evelyn thinks of as abandoning and quixotic.
Even Holder’s best scenes, Bowzie’s increasingly despondent descriptions of time in a Mississippi jail, take a melodramatic cast because Bowzie reads letters he is sending to Sally-Mae to us instead of acting out his experiences for all to see.
Because Holder keeps emotions so high and provides an outburst in almost every scene, the actors, paced well by director LA Williams, each get a chance to wring feelings from the audience.
Joniece Abbott-Pratt is bouncy and optimistic as Sally-Mae until suspicions and an inability to forgive turn her sour and make her reconsider where her freedom and happiness lie. Her performance makes you sympathetic to Sally-Mae and creates disappointment when she becomes deaf to reason and distant from the life she seemed to be craving.
Landon G. Woodson is solid as Tony, a man who is fighting personal demons but seems to be overcoming them. Woodson is so upright in his role it makes it more difficult, in a good way dramatically, to accept that no one acknowledges Tony’s growth or sincerity.
Felicia Boswell finds the inextinguishable firecracker in Evelyn while making you believe her character is ready to settle down to a quieter family life. Everybody bursts into song in “Too Heavy For Your Pocket,” but Boswell gets a genuine musical turn and aces it.
Donnell E. Smith subtly but firmly brings about the transition of Bowzie from the clown of the group to the one who tackles serious business seriously. Smith conveys the pain and further degrading injustice Bowzie feels as he takes action to gain freedom.
Wilson Chin’s set lets a kitchen become a world. Asa Benally’s costumes, especially the Jackie Kennedy-like outfits Sally-Mae reproduces from patterns, are perfect for each character.
Too Heavy For Your Pocket, George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, through Sunday, May 19. $25 to $86. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.