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“Byhalia, Mississippi!” The title, alone, makes you curious and ready to purchase a ticket to The Steppenwolf’s (Chicago, Illinois) latest production. Written by Evan Linder and directed by the phenomenally talented Tyrone Phillips, the production “Byhalia, Mississippi” highlights the story of a young couple embedded with themes of race, class, gender and even sexuality. Self-determination is also a key theme that resonated for me while viewing the play.
Madly in love with each other, the characters Laurel and Jim are poor but rich in dreaming and dream making. What is the big deal, you might ask? Well, given all of the issues surrounding the aforementioned themes and their relevance in today’s America, this story is a timely one.
As the lights go down, we see a Laurel who is pregnant, and her husband who is extremely excited about the impending arrival of his child. It seems that everything Jim wished for himself is transferred to his unborn child. He connects so strongly with the child while still in the womb that it is easy to understand why he is virtually devastated once it revealed during the delivery of the child that the father is black.
With the story line being as simple as that, it’s the underlying themes, the hidden messages and age-old nuances around race and gender that stand out. The following is a listing of the five characters played by five outstanding actors and a description of what that character represents.
1. Laurel – A young white woman who has a history of making decisions based on her own selfish needs. Her mom, Celeste, delivers a scathing soliloquy on Laurel’s history of this behavior and wants her to “get rid” of the black child. Of course, getting rid of the child speaks to Celeste’s irresponsibility. The fruit seems to fall not too far from the tree.
2. Jim – A young white man who seems to bond with the child so deeply prior to the delivery that his world come crashing down when he finds out the child is black. The underlying theme here is that he is more in love with the idea of fatherhood than the actual carrying out of the role – the child being black seems to destroy this.
3. Karl – a young black man who is Jim’s best friend and immediately assumed to be the father of the black child. He is so loyal to Jim, that it takes him a while to realize that Jim has some deep seated issues around his black maleness. Additionally, it’s Karl’s later (prompted by Ayesha’s pain) inner revelation that “wakes” him up to a world of racism and invisibility (even though Jim doesn’t have a clue as to why Karl now sees their relationship differently).
4. Celeste – Laurel’s mother who is exceptionally concerned about the hardships that Laurel will have raising a black child and the equally troublesome time the child will have. She feels that Jim is a great husband, and she doesn’t want to her daughter to lose him over something that reeks of misery.
6. Paul- the husband of Ayesha and educator who fathers Laurels baby. We never see Paul in the production, but he is characterized through Ayesha’s eyes as selfish, irresponsible and self-indulgent.
5 Ayesha – a young, black woman married to Paul who has invested a lot into the image of an upstanding woman.
However, she needs to maintain her family’s respectable image even if it means major self-sacrificing. It doesn’t go unnoticed that Laurel seems to have very little interest in Paul — she is too interested in getting Jim to forgive her so they can move on with their lives (even with a biracial child).
Ayesha, in my estimation, has the deepest character representation in the entire production. She has placed a lot of time, energy and value into being the quintessential wife and mother , an upstanding citizen and credit to her race. These traits, along with her self-sacrificing nature, has been created and built over the years, and for what purpose?
Ayesha is betrayed by Laurel despite their numerous years of being friendship; she is still disrespected by her husband Paul who could care less about how his actions hurt others, and the whole town knows about Paul’s history, making Ayesha’s sacrifices really worthless.
The scenes between Laurel and Ayesha highlight longstanding tensions between white and black women around men, status and stature. Ayesha even writes Laurel a check to high tail it out of town – anything so that she can maintain her dignity and save face.
The remainder of the play is spent allowing the characters to move into their own truth. For Laurel and Jim, that truth translates into forgiveness.
It doesn’t get past me that this well written and directed play, along with its superb acting (by ALL of the actors) was conjured out of the genius of Evan Linder (who also portrays Jim). For a white writer to understand these complex racial themes and all of the underlying nuances, is nothing short of miraculous! Linder truly has a high state of consciousness and an understanding of the power of forgiveness
Trust me — you can’t afford to miss this outstanding play. It has to be one of the best plays that I’ve ever seen!