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A new play explores the personal toll of fighting for civil rights
Emerging African-American dramatist Jiréh Breon Holder wrote his new play because of his grandmother. The 2016 Yale School of Drama graduate and his nana were watching a movie -- either The Butler or Selma, he can't remember which -- when suddenly she exclaimed, "I knew one of those Freedom Riders. I can't believe he threw away his education to hop on a bus!"
The Freedom Riders were a group of '60s civil rights activists who went on trips throughout the South in an attempt to uphold desegregation laws at bus terminals, which weren't being enforced. Born and bred in Nashville, TN, Mama Nola as she's affectionately known never considered joining them. "Her understanding of the sacrifice was much more practical and pragmatic than history remembers," says Holder, 27, noting that she had five children by the time she was his age. "She was raising a family and making sure that her kids were safe and taken care of."
Inspired by her down-to-earth perspective, Holder penned Too Heavy for Your Pocket, which is having its New York premiere as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground series. In it, pregnant Sally-Mae Carter (Mama Nola's stand-in) is initially incredulous when her close friend Bowzie Brandon gives up a college scholarship in order to, as she sees it, "hop on a bus."
"She is my hero, even though she's not the hero that we tend to think of with the civil rights movement," Holder says, crediting his grandmother's choice to stay home and focus on family as part of the reason he was able to attend Yale all those decades later. "Just being able to thrive in such a hostile period of time is an act of resistance."
In addition to his grandma, the Memphis-raised playwright called on other folks who lived through that era for fodder. Through his uncle he met the now-deceased Freedom Rider Matthew Walker Jr., who connected Holder with his peers. Many of their recollections are included in the play. In fact, all of the stories Bowzie tells in the letters he writes to Sally-Mae are true, and many real-life Freedom Riders are name-checked.
At his interviewees' urging, Holder didn't leave out any of the gory details, including mice infestations, prison overcrowding, difficulty returning to civilian life, and other unpleasant facts often omitted from history books. "It was almost like they were in a war," Holder says. "I thought they marched and went home. Everyone I talked to who had been part of the civil-rights movement had been changed by it in a way that didn't let them reintegrate into society. They wanted to make sure that no one forgets."
One of Too Heavy for Your Pocket's big takeaways is that there is no one heroic path. Whether marching on the front lines or caring for your family at home, Holder believes everyone can play a role in improving the world.
"Not everybody has to put their life on the line, but I do think, like Martin Luther King said, injustices affect us all whether or not we realize it," Holder says. "I hope this play helps people notice how they might contribute, even if that's donating $5 to Planned Parenthood or voting. There are many ways to do it."
Top image: Nneka Okafor and Hampton Fluker in Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.
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