SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA., July 13, 2017 –In pretty much every survey of American personal income, education, health, housing and quality of life we’ve seen in recent years, the state of Mississippi seems to land near or at the very bottom.
But while it looks like nobody would want to live there, a lot of people do. They’re a surprisingly diverse and adaptable lot, just like the eccentric yet very human characters we meet in Evan Linder’s “Byhalia, Mississippi,” one of six new plays being presented here at the Contemporary American Theater Festival’s (CATF’s) 2017 edition.
“Byhalia, Mississippi” is very much a “dramedy,” a play that’s part comedy and part serious drama. Despite its often-uproarious fun, this is a play that touches on edgy personal and social issues that can keep families and neighbors on edge whether they’re upper class or trying to keep afloat somewhat further down in the economic pecking order.
That’s doubly true for the fictionalized inhabitants of Byhalia, a real-life small town (population 1,302 as of the 2010 census) nestled near the northwest corner of Mississippi in rural Marshall County, bordering on Tennessee.
Despite its relative obscurity, Byhalia was actually a good choice for Linder’s setting, given the town’s dodgy race relations in the latter half of the 20th century.
Byhalia and Marshall County were slow to drop their longstanding Jim Crow rules, even after Washington’s passage of the landmark 1965 civil rights legislation.
In 1974, Butler Young, Jr., a young black man, was arrested as a suspect in a hit-and-run. The unarmed Young escaped from the police car in which he was being detained and was shot and killed by police – an eerie foreshadowing of the racial issues that have arisen in the U.S. more recently and something obviously noted by the playwright.
When the Young case against the police ended without a conviction, this incident quickly led to a lengthy black boycott of white-owned businesses in the area that received national media coverage. The Young case is by no means the central focus of Linder’s play. But it’s key to understanding its thematic undercurrent.
“Byhalia’s” comedy is set in the present in what appears to be the single-wide home of young marrieds Jim (Jason Babinsky), an occasionally-employed laborer, and Laurel (Jessica Savage), a very pregnant local schoolteacher.
Laurel’s highly-controlling mother Celeste (Hollis McCarthy) is on hand to “help” with the baby’s imminent debut, while Jim’s best pal Karl (Yaegel T. Welch) hangs around to help with logistics. Laurel, Celeste and Jim are white, while Karl is black, and despite Celeste’s obnoxious present, they all get along more or less. At least early in the game.
The first third of “Byhalia” goes heavy on the comedy, as Jim and Laurel and Laurel and Celeste locks horns regarding Laurel’s upcoming blessed event, their first. But just as the audience is getting settled in, awaiting Laurel’s return home from the hospital with her bundle of joy, the proceedings take an unexpected turn. The new baby boy bears no physical resemblance to Jim. Or Laurel, for that matter.
We’ve learned early on that Jim has cheated on Laurel at least once, though she’s forgiven him. But now, it’s obvious that Laurel has also cheated on Jim in a way that’s a bit harder to hide. As a result, their marriage quickly frays. But so, too, does the friendship between Jim and Karl.
“Byhalia” more or less ends on a hopeful note. But all the characters involved, including Ayesha (Adrian Kiser), the school principal’s wife, will never be the same, particularly in this small town where everyone knows everything.
It seems a shame to over-analyze this interesting play. But the ingeniously evenhanded way in which social and racial issues permeate its plot without hectoring or preaching deserves notice. Equally impressive is the fact that, while the two primary characters in this play could be simply brushed off as “white trash,” they’re still portrayed as real human beings with actual hearts and minds.
It’s also noteworthy that Linder’s minority characters, at least in the context of this play, have clearly climbed the social ladder despite the real life events of the 1970s. This has led to social and economic role reversals for which neither whites nor blacks are fully prepared.
Linder perceives and sympathizes with all this social and racial confusion in a convincing yet subtle way, adding further to this drama’s depth and authenticity. Right or wrong, all his characters are imperfect human beings who simply try to make the best of bad or confusing situations.
The playwright generally tries to keep things light and funny even as duly notes the social and racial issues that lie persistently just beneath the surface.
Under the energetic stage direction of Marc Masterson, “Byhalia’s” cast does a fine job keeping things real. Their efforts and those of their director transform this comic play into something more: a genuine and believable slice of Southern life.
In “Byhalia, Mississippi,” Linder’s small, well-crafted, semi-fictional southern town setting artfully lays out a human landscape significantly more sophisticated than the Southern Gothic, Snopes-family caricatures so favored by those who know nothing about this region. It’s a great fit with CATF’s long-standing desire to present “Think Theater” dramas in each and every season.
Rating: *** 1/2 (3 and one-half out of 4 stars)
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Festival continues through July 30, 2017.