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Review: New Evan Linder play a timely drama about race, family, love (Includes first-hand account)

Byhalia, Mississippi is a unique event in independent theatre: billed as a “World Premiere Conversation,” the drama has opened concurrently in four different cities — Chicago, Memphis and Charleston, South Carolina in addition to the Storefront Theatre in Toronto, where I saw it. During the play’s run, there will also be staged readings in Los Angeles, in Birmingham, Alabama and in Boulder, Colorado; these events will culminate in an online multi-city discussion on January 18.

It’s a bold publicity move for award-winning playwright Linder, who is a co-founder of Chicago company The New Colony. But he had good reason to feel confident with this script, which won a Memphis play-writing competition and was shortlisted for other prizes before it was produced. Byhalia tells a story that rings with relevance and timeliness as American racial violence and prejudice continue to make headlines and little seems to be changing about it. And if the intense Toronto production directed by Jill Harper is typical, this drama is essential viewing no matter what city you’re in.

The couple in Byhalia is Laurel and Jim Parker (Claire Armstrong, Joshua Browne), who have settled in the latter’s nondescript Mississippi hometown against the wishes of Laurel’s fussy, old-guard religious mother, Celeste (Orphan Black‘s Kyra Harper). Despite Jim’s lack of career prospects and occasional immaturity, the couple appears reasonably happy as they await the birth of their first child. But things fall apart when little Bobby is born black — revealing a brief affair that Laurel had months earlier.

Not only does this wreck the marriage, it also affects Jim’s friendship with childhood buddy Karl (Mazin Elsadig), whom he initially accuses of being the father. Underlying bigotry and hidden wounds begin to boil to the surface in all the characters, particularly in Celeste, who tells Jim he has been “cuckolded in the most grotesque way imaginable” and refers to the baby as “it” rather than “he.” The wife of the child’s real father, Ayesha (Virgilia Griffith), warns Laurel and her son to move to a bigger city for their own safety — scolding Laurel for being oblivious about how the Byhalia locals will treat them. (Although the term “white privilege” is never spoken in the play, that seems to be the implication of Laurel’s naive plan to raise Bobby in Byhalia.)

Byhalia is loaded with thorny themes and subject matter that could easily become preachy or overly political in less-skilled hands, but Linder deftly keeps the play focused on the domestic drama at hand without telling the audience how to judge these people. One of the play’s notable strengths is the way it makes you empathize with every one of these flawed characters; you may disagree with Jim’s instant decision to abandon Laurel and Bobby, but you understand the emotions that drive him to it. “You made me love someone who wasn’t real,” he laments to her, recalling how much he was looking forward to raising his own child.

Linder’s play may touch on serious issues, but it’s not without its funny moments; the script snaps and kicks with sharp dialogue that feels realistic while still understanding the art of wit. “I think the baby knows you’re visiting, and it’s afraid to come out,” overdue Laurel tells her nagging mom in the first scene. Later, Jim quips about Laurel’s choice to marry him and move back to Byhalia with him: “Was there some kind of white-trash competition you were about to lose or something?” Jill Harper’s direction keeps the tension going as lines bounce back and forth quickly and naturally like a heated tennis match. The only time this production loses its energy is the beginning of the second act, at a table-sitting scene that introduces Ayesha, but maybe the audience needs a rest by then.

Jill Harper’s production of Byhalia is rife with strong performers, but Armstrong — a past Dora winner for After Miss Julie — gives it the most personal depth. Laurel is a woman who makes mistakes and can be selfish, but Armstrong imbues her with a sure level of intelligence and self-awareness, and there’s never a moment when you don’t feel for her and her struggles; her guilt and her need to move forward are always clear. Browne makes Jim likable in spite of his goofy hick childishness, Elsadig is a strong foil for Browne and Kyra Harper makes Celeste both frustrating and sympathetic, a foolish, out-of-touch woman who still maintains her dignity through her noble intentions.

The only arguable major flaw in Linder’s play is the limited point of view of Karl and Ayesha; Byhalia is primarily about the Caucasian characters. Not that Linder didn’t have the right to focus on Laurel and Jim if he wanted to, but in a play about racial issues, it’s ironic that Karl and especially Ayesha are still firmly taking the backseat in stage time. (You don’t see the baby much either, but that probably doesn’t count.) It would have added needed texture to see more scenes between Karl and Ayesha, expanding their perspective of the story; as it is, Byhalia may not be passing some race-adapted version of the Bechdel Test.

But if you accept the play as it is, Byhalia, Mississippi is still a potent portrait of how unconscious racism can shatter a family and rock a community in contemporary America. And this small Toronto production does it fair justice. I can’t speak for the other productions happening in the U.S. at the same time, but if you’re in Toronto, see this while you can.

Byhalia, Mississippi runs at the Storefront Theatre until January 22.

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