Our experiences with off the WALL productions at the Carnegie Stage never fail to leave me moved, thoughtful, and a bit perplexed.
The current production of Byhalia, Mississippi did not fail me in the regard.
The play, written by Evan Linder, is making its Pittsburgh debut this month. Act now to see this because it is heading for the likes of the Kennedy Center next season. And somehow that seeming dichotomy in production venues works.
Jim and Laurel Parker are living in Jim’s hometown of Byhalia in the final days of Laurel’s pregnancy. The set is focused on the interior and exterior of their self-described ‘redneck’ working class home complete with mismatched, comfortable furnishings and a whole lot of aluminum siding. The lack of a backdoor suggests it is a trailer.
The cast includes Laurel’s mother, Jim’s BFF Karl, and neighbor Ayesha who is married to the biological father of Laurel’s baby.
The play unfolds in several scenes as the couple awaits the birth of their baby and then deals with the emotional fallout of Laurel’s indiscretion.
My take is that Linder is contrasting interpersonal forgiveness such as infidelity with the larger, but more subtle themes of systemic, oppressive and brutal forces of racial injustice, white privilege, and socioeconomic mobility. And homophobia, within a friendship, within the Church, and within one’s internalized self-loathing.
Laurel’s fierce love for her husband and her newborn son, Bobby, are affecting. Even as her eyes are opened, she claims, for the first time to the realities of racism in Byhalia, her ‘wokeness’ is a bit shaky. I had no reason to doubt she loved her son, but even with a middle name paying tribute to a Civil Rights hero, these are early days for Laurel.
The ending was unsettling. Even though Ayesha and Karl both seemed better off socio-economically speaking, their inner turmoil and compromises and unspoken truths in relationship to this white couple were palpable. I found myself rooting for everyone and no one.
Another thought Laura and I discussed on our way home. Laurel and Jim are working class white folks, but Laurel is a public school teacher. Jim worked construction. Laurel should be part of the middle class. Recent events across the nation as teachers push for fair compensation make this plotline a little more resonant that it might have been even a year ago. Still, you may note the theme that with her education and her whiteness, Laurel could leave Byhalia if she wanted to do so.
I would be remiss if I did not highlight the performance of Virginia Wall Gruenert as Laurel’s mother, Celeste. My jaw hit the floor several times over the things that woman (character) said in the play because it is so antithetical to the actor. I lived in Louisiana and Kentucky for several years and met some Mama Celestes along the way. Celeste is vicious in her love and a character we would all love to hate in real life.
It is also worth noting that Ayesha – the Black woman – is the one who sees the bigger truths, but provides the literal mode of communication for others to start really listening. Before she hit reset, everything was a one way dialogue. No one was listening so no one heard the truth.
Go see this play in Carnegie. It runs April 20 through May 5. Tickets start at $5 for students.
Written by Evan Linder
Directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen
With: Erika Cuenca, Brandon Meeks, Lamar K. Cheston, Hope Anthony, and Virginia Wall Gruenert
Ten performances: April 20-21, 26-28, and May 3-5 at 8pm/April 22 & 29 at 3pm
Tickets: $ 5.00 – $ 35.00
By Phone: (724)873.3576
Location: Carnegie Stage, 25 W Main St., Carnegie, PA. 15106