The Roundabout Theatre Company’s developmental program is called Roundabout Underground, and it’s housed in the sub-sub-basement of the nonprofit’s off-Broadway complex, the Steinberg Center for Theatre, where shows typically play to audiences of fewer than 100 patrons. Yet from this grotto chamber has come, with astonishing consistency, some of the most promising new works to have been seen on any stage in New York.
The latest discovery to emerge from these depths is Too Heavy For Your Pocket, a four-character, one-set play by newcomer Jiréh Breon Holder that takes place in a modest Nashville home in 1961, where Sally-Mae Carter (Nneka Okafor) and Tony Carter (Hampton Fluker) are preparing for the birth of their child and celebrating Sally-Mae’s graduation from cosmetology school. Their closest friends are Sally-Mae’s brother Bowzie (Brandon Gill), who’s just won a full scholarship to Fisk University, and his sardonic wife Evelyn (Eboni Flowers), a club singer of some local note who puts the bread on the table.
All four are African-American and the Top 10 pop-music heard on the radio (the show opens with strains of “Please Mr. Postman”) is intermingled with news of the growing Civil Rights movement sweeping through the South. Soon that movement will swallow Bowzie as he decides to join the Freedom Riders; it’s impact will be felt heavily by the other three as well.
The play – a co-production with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, where it had its premiere earlier this year – and this production bristle with ideas that bring fresh news to a familiar tale, notably a deeply personal look at how events we typically see in broad relief might have been felt and experienced under a microscope. Reid Thompson’s rustic set – the stage direction is “grass everywhere” – in this intimate setting brings us front and center (the superb lighting is by Jiyoon Chang) in this almost hermetically sealed world. And director Margot Bordelon’s sensitive staging honors that intimacy in its no-nonsense, fuss-free simplicity and elegance.
Most important is the astonishing caliber of the four actors in these roles, each drawn as if by a laser printer, with no small amount of help from a gifted writer who will be amazing to watch as his work grows. Okafor has uncompromising grace as Sally-Mae, Flowers a sizzling authenticity as Evelyn, whose shell, it turns out, is not unbreakable. Fluker earns our compassion as the flawed but struggling Tony, and if Gill is first among equals it’s because the playwright has given him the most extroverted role and he soars with it.
So take note of these names. You’ll be hearing and seeing more from all of them.