Playwright Jiréh Breon Holder was an MFA playwriting student at Yale University when he found himself struggling to make sense of a nation gripped by escalating racial tensions and a virtual non-stop flood of violence. To stay in school, or take to the streets and advocate for justice? That was the question.
The young, politically-minded playwright found the answer as he examined the Black Lives Matter movement and its ties to the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America—two complex flashpoints in the history of American social justice.
Holder melded art and activism to create Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Set in Nashville in 1961, Too Heavy for Your Pocket is a story about a group of four young African-American friends whose closeness is suddenly disrupted when one of them decides to join the Freedom Riders. As Bowzie weighs up the rare chance to go to college over the very real dangers of participating in the Civil Rights Movement, their worlds begin to shift around them.
The play’s historic authenticity and contemporary resonance earned Holder a slew of awards this year, including the Laurents/Hatcher Award and the top honor in the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition.
Following a world premiere earlier this year at the Alliance Theatre, produced in arrangement with Roundabout Theatre Company, Too Heavy for Your Pocket arrived in New York in September as part of Roundabout Underground, a new play initiative that is now celebrating its tenth year of cultivating vital new voices in American theatre. Too Heavy for Your Pocket opened October 5 to strong reviews, and recently extended through November 26.
Holder joins an impressive list of American playwrights whose work has been nurtured by Roundabout Underground, including Tony Award winner Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate), Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews), Lindsey Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the Bone), Kim Rosenstock (Tigers Be Still), and Adam Gwon (Ordinary Days), among others.
One of Roundabout Underground’s key draws is that it serves both the artist and the audience. This new play hub enables emerging playwrights to see their works produced in a full production under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company and its artistic and financial resources. In addition, each Roundabout Underground playwright is given a commission for a future play, ensuring that their work will continue to have an artistic home.
Audiences also benefit. All tickets for Roundabout Underground are $25, which ensures that all theatregoers, especially other young artists, can afford to catch these new plays and discover up-and-coming theatre talent.
Read Playbill’s Q&A with Too Heavy for Your Pocket playwright Jiréh Breon Holder:
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Jiréh Breon Holder: I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, but a lot of my family lives in Nashville. The city seemed like this mythical place, filled with stories, and I’d always wanted to write a piece about it—and for my grandmother specifically. As the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum [around me], it felt like the right time to investigate the Civil Rights Movement—this moment in time when my grandparents were my age, and begin to question how they dealt with it. I was interested in what lessons we could learn from today.
Can you elaborate on how today’s politics and the Black Lives Matter movement influenced a story set in 1961?
I was at the Yale School of Drama and I was having trouble writing. I couldn’t figure out why I was there—at an Ivy League school when I really needed to be out in the streets. A lot of my friends were feeling the same way. We all wanted to do something but we weren’t sure how to be of service. That was the major impulse for this scenario where Bowzie Brandon, who has the opportunity of his life, is then is faced with the choice to participate in the movement. That was the jumping off point for the play.
What kind of research did you do?
I wanted to focus on first-hand accounts of the time. I spoke a lot with Matthew Walker Jr. about his experience of the Freedom Rides, and what I learned was that it was almost like going to war for a lot of these students. They weren’t able to return to a normal life after risking their lives for the fight for justice. It changed them.
How has RTC’s Underground program impacted your development as a playwright?
Almost immeasurably. The most tangible way I can explain it is by saying that on opening night, I wasn’t nervous about making my Off-Broadway debut. I didn’t have any anxiety because Roundabout had given all of its resources to make this production the show I had envisioned in my head. And, they’d already commissioned me for another play. They made sure that I knew that they were invested in my career and not just this one play. Roundabout knows how to nurture writers.
Who are your influences as a writer?
My two biggest influences are Toni Morrison and Whoopi Goldberg. Morrison is a master of digging deep into other people’s experiences that are somehow intertwined with our own history. I strive to do that and I think theatre does that—we watch plays about people we’ve never met before, but we’re learning about ourselves at the same time. Goldberg has always been able to mix humanity and humor, which I also strive to do. Playwrights I love: Sarah Ruhl, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Tori Sampson.
Directed by Margot Bordelon, Too Heavy for Your Pocket, has been extended through November 26. Tickets can be purchased at roundabouttheatre.org.