What value does a formal education hold when the members of one’s community are being systematically and violently disenfranchised? How does one weigh personal achievement against participation in a momentous struggle for equality?
These are the questions asked in “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” the award-winning civil rights drama from Emory Playwriting Fellow Jiréh Breon Holder, currently running at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre through Feb. 26.
In “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” two young couples living in rural Tennessee at the height of the Civil Right Movement struggle to reconcile social justice with personal responsibilities.
“We got a role in this thing. I can make sure the words and ideas in the Constitution ain’t just pretty thoughts.”
This declaration comes from Holder’s character Bowzie, a man with a full scholarship to Fisk University and a chance to improve his young family’s life, but whose conscience pushes him to relinquish the scholarship to become a Freedom Rider and join the fight against racism in the Deep South.
“When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, or any moment in history, it is often with such reverence for its figureheads that we forget they were real people,” says Holder.
A recollection from Holder’s grandmother of one such person provided the spark for Bowzie’s story. “She told me one day, ‘Oh yeah, I knew one of those Freedom Riders. He threw his education away to hop on a bus,’” says Holder. “It really struck me, because that’s not how we remember that moment in history at all.”
2016 was a landmark year for Holder. He received his MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” won the Alliance Theatre’s prestigious Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, and he was appointed Emory’s 2016-2018 Fellow in Playwriting.
It appears that Holder’s career will not be slowing down in 2017, with the world premiere of “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” and the announcement that the play is the recipient of the annual Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award. The play will also be staged Off-Broadway as part of the Roundabout Theater Company’s 2017-2018 season.
This is all in keeping with the Alliance/Kendeda’s goal to “transition student playwrights to the world of professional theatre” and the Emory Playwriting Fellowship’s aim to provide an emerging playwright the opportunity to explore creative pursuits while engaging passionate Emory students.
Because this year’s Kendeda winner also happens to be Emory’s Playwriting Fellow, creative writing and theater studies students at Emory have been first-hand witnesses and even participants in Holder’s transition to professional theater-maker.
Student research plays key role
In the fall 2016 semester, Lisa Paulsen, director of Emory’s Playwriting Center, and Celise Kalke, director of new projects at the Alliance and production dramaturg for “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” co-taught a course in dramaturgy, the theory and practice of dramatic composition. Students in the tutorial conducted practical and targeted research in support of the production of “Too Heavy for Your Pocket.” Projects focused on research into various aspects of the text and were incorporated into the rehearsal process for the production.
One student, Adam Friedman, even saw his research on correspondence among Freedom Riders and between Riders and their loved ones make its way into Holder’s text.
“I primarily searched through the Rose Library archives, using the Joan Browning and Elizabeth Martinez papers,” says Friedman. “I took photographs of the letters, as well as recording pertinent information such as conversation topics, cost of postage, where the letters were written from, and what material was used.”
Since many of Browning’s letters were from prison, she resorted to using toilet paper for some of her correspondence. “It was surreal when Jiréh ended up using some of the research I found in (the toilet paper letters) and integrated it into his text,” Friedman says.
Looking beyond his work in the classroom, Holder plans to invite Emory students to engage with the theatrical cannon through a workshop series of monthly case studies examining a singular dramatic text. The case studies began last month with a reading of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking work, “Angels in America.”
“My hope is the case studies we do will dig deep into unexpected texts in unexpected ways. Having a reading of “Angels in America” on Inauguration Day directed by Michael Develle Winn, a gay, black man who lived through the AIDS crisis, is just one example of how we can reinvigorate these texts,” says Holder.
“Theater is alive and well, but it won’t remain that way if the theater-makers of tomorrow don’t keep it breathing and vivacious,” he adds.
With a quarter of his fellowship tenure already passed, Holder is already feeling the fleeting nature of his time on campus.
“I love Emory students,” he says. “It’s been a blast, and I’m already sensing the bittersweet feeling of two years not being long enough.”