Too Heavy for Your Pocket

Theatre As Protest


Around 1890, the Lord Chamberlain of England banned Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts from public performance due to its unconventional and offensive subject matter. When an illicit performance of the play went up anyway at the Royalty Theatre in 1891, audience members were appalled by the “indecency” of a story about venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia; critics went so far as to call the show “a dirty deed done in public.” Just over 30 years later, the entire cast of the American production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance was arrested on obscenity charges after staging the first-ever kiss between two women on Broadway -- a story recently brought into the spotlight by Paula Vogel’s Indecent. In 1937, the cast of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, defying a government command to cancel production, performed in the audience during the first preview rather than on the stage and, on this technicality, avoided shutdown. And in 1965, the Lord Chamberlain prosecuted the producers of Edward Bond’s play Saved for staging the show after it had been refused its license for depictions of violence and barbarism.

These are far from the only instances in recent history in which the performance of a play or musical has itself served as a form of political protest. Theatre might not normally have a reputation for transgression, yet some of our fiercest sociopolitical battles in fact play out on stages across the world, sometimes finding creators and producers at odds with the law. Our Constitution, of course, protects the right to free speech, but attempts at censorship take many forms, some of which have made national headlines as recently as this past summer.

When The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar opened this past June, a few major funders of The Public were displeased that the character of Julius Caesar in this production quite overtly resembled President Donald Trump. Unhappy that the show seemed to be depicting the assassination of the acting President, Delta Airlines and Bank of America -- longtime sponsors of the New York Shakespeare Festival -- pulled their support of the production, saying that The Public’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.” Despite these setbacks, the show continued as scheduled.

Julius Caesar may only be the beginning of a season both on and off-Broadway marked by a theme of protest and political resistance. The stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 has been running on Broadway since May; it follows a duo who fights their authoritarian regime by daring to fall in love. Also running on Broadway is documentarian Michael Moore’s solo show The Terms of My Surrender, which pushes audiences to confront political differences. And earlier this spring, Robert Schenkkan’s off-Broadway play Building the Wall imagined an America in the midst of Trump-instituted martial law.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket, though set over fifty years in the past, finds good company in a season of New York theatre that draws on traditions of protest and social critique. If the current Broadway and Off-Broadway scene is any indication, the battles against censorship that were being waged a century ago are still being fought today -- and there is much progress to be made. Too Heavy for Your Pocket reminds us of the value and power of political protest, and though we may feel distanced from the kind of pushback levied against Ghosts or God of Vengeance, it is a reminder worth heeding now more than ever.


Too Heavy for Your Pocket runs through November 26 in the Black Box Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Too Heavy for Your Pocket

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Too Heavy for Your Pocket Design Statements


Reid Thompson/Set Design

Too Heavy for Your Pocket is set on a place in between. It is in between the city and the country, between nature and civilization, modernity and the past. Sally and Tony's home is a refuge for our four characters, a safe and warm space of their own making where they can be themselves, hidden and protected from the outside world. Our characters draw strength from the earth and the natural world, and we wanted the set to be both Sally and Tony's home and Bowzie's field, simultaneously. The landscape is burned into the walls, and grass grows on top of the floorboards. We wanted a fully immersive environment that takes full advantage of every inch of the intimate Black Box Theatre, where the audience is literally invited into our quartet's world. The materials and props are inspired by meticulous historical research, but realized with an emphasis on the poetic feeling of the place over accurate historical recreation. As the play progresses, the ugliness of the outside world starts to intrude on our refuge, and we wanted the physical environment to reflect a shift as well.

Model of the set


Valérie Bart/Costume Design

Gordon Parks photo

I wanted to fully immerse myself in the period and culture, so I began looking at a lot of photographs of civil rights protests, freedom riders, school desegregation, but staying away from such recognizable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. I became aware of two photographers of the time, Gordon Parks and Bruce Davidson. While the latter focused more on actual protests, rallies, and clashes, Gordon Parks went to the South and captured how black families and people actually lived. There are collections of color photos that show the effects of segregation and systemic racism, and Parks frames it in such a beautifully heartbreaking way. These were the inspiration for the color palette of the costumes. My design process involves a quirky way of sketching. I like to do what I call “paperdoll-ing.” Essentially, sketching all the clothes that will be layered on a base body, rather than spending the time sketching new poses and re-drawing faces for the same character, I would trace the clothes using a light box and cut the clothes out to layer on top. The varying looks would then be scanned and lightly photoshopped and printed out as complete sketches. It ultimately also became a great tool to discover how a character would wear clothes—layer up or down, buttoned or not, tucked/untucked, etc. It would also get me thinking about quick changes and the tracking of clothing. Edits and adjustments would be vastly easier and faster with just having to re-draw the clothes and not spend the time with faces/hands and poses.

A great example of this was with Bowzie. Even though he doesn’t have many costume looks, he layers up and down his pieces throughout the show in some major character arcs. Margot Bordelon, the director, and I spoke at length about what it meant for him to be barefoot and shirtless, as well as in a full suit. And then to see the suit be taken off, the “stripping” of his humanity and the reveal of his human body when in nothing but underwear. To see the underwear eventually deteriorate over time along with his dignity, and the last image of the once immaculate suit that was supposed to mean so much now crumpled and dirty were important visual storytelling points, which we hope will heighten the experience for the audience

Bowzie's costume design

Jiyoun Chang/Lighting Design

Although we haven’t sat in the same room at the same time, I feel we have been in the same room from the beginning of this journey. We have all been open to new ideas and concepts even though some have joined the journey at different points in the life of this production. We honored what worked in the Alliance Theatre production in Atlanta, focusing on how to transfer those ideas and reimagining how to make them work in a new space. Most of all, we all value the poetic nature of Jiréh Holder’s play, although its domestic set-up is based on naturalism. That lyric naturalism anchored and guided our meetings and led us to a new visual landscape. The new ground plan is simpler and open -- allowing light to perform at its best in poetic, abstract, and impressionistic ways. This new ground plan will heighten the nature of the play, and it also allows for exciting fluidity in staging. Margot Bordelon, the director, and Reid Thompson, the set designer, gave warm and open direction, and Jiréh’s soft and supportive voice in the meetings was helpful for the entire design team to arrive at this crucial point in our journey together.

Ian Williams/Sound Design

On my initial read of the play, I responded immediately to Evelyn, considering how our social/political climate is behaving in its current condition. I felt this strong and radiating tension inside as I asked myself, “Could I leave my family behind to stand up for what I believed was right?” I don’t know the answer to that question because, as a young and privileged man, I still don’t know what my personal thresholds are just yet. That’s been part of my personal journey while interacting with the play. Overall, I am a steadfast believer in the magic and imagination that Jiréh puts on the page. When I hear and read his stories, my imagination runs wild and my heart is moved. When I begin sound research for a show of this nature, I always start with a history lesson. I ask questions like, “What is common knowledge to an American citizen?” or “What is popular in my age group right now?” I create playlists of popular music and listen to the sounds of commonly used appliances or gadgets. In this way, I gain an understanding of what people would hear on a da- to-day basis and move forward from there, letting my heart lead the way. The challenge on any show for me is always finding the balance between responding with my heart and keeping moments honest in the sound design. I know that I am susceptible to having a sentimental response. Being in the rehearsal room is how I avoid this happening. I can respond to the director and actor as the crow flies during the process.


Too Heavy for Your Pocket runs through November 26 at The Black Box Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket

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Brandon Gill. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated, and what made you decide to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you on your journey?

Brandon Gill: I was born in Winthrop Hospital in Garden City, New York, and I grew up on Long Island and in Queens. I wanted to be a singer because my mom sang. My mother was in a singing group called Triche. I would be doing my homework while her group rehearsed in their studio. I was about five years old when I told my mother I wanted to be “inside the television.” So, my mother put me in these musical theatre classes on Long Island. It was a program called Way Off Broadway. At the end of the program, there was a showcase for agents and managers. And that’s when I signed with my manager, whom I’m still with today. I was 11 years old. I went to LaGuardia High School, and I had an amazing experience there. After LaGuardia, I went to The Juilliard School. I was the first person in over 17 years to go straight from LaGuardia’s drama program to Juilliard. A teacher at LaGuardia who had a profound effect on me was Harry Shifman. He directed me in ​West Side Story, ​and he was the one who encouraged and pushed me to audition for Juilliard. At LaGuardia, I also had the good fortune of being taught by James Moody, who was an acting teacher there as well as a graduate of Group 1 -- the first graduating class of Juilliard’s drama division.


TS: Why did you choose to play Bowzie Brandon in Jiréh Breon Holder’s play ​Too Heavy for Your Pocket​?

BG: Jiréh wrote the character for me. I met him in 2014. I was doing a reading of one of his first plays at Yale, and about a year after that reading, he got in touch with me and said, “I wrote this play, and I wrote a character with you in mind. I would love if you did a reading of it.” It’s such a blessing that it’s now being produced by the Roundabout in New York City and I get to be in it.


TS: Rehearsals haven’t begun yet, but will you tell us what you think the play is about?

BG: I think the play is about family, it’s about courage and forgiveness and understanding. Every one of the characters is coming into themselves. Thetwo male characters are coming into their manhood. And the women are on a similar journey. I also think it’s about the ever-evolving human spirit through various trials and tribulations. Jiréh writes with a tremendous amount of heart.


Eboni Flowers, Hampton Fluker, Brandon Gill, Nneka Okafor in Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.


TS: What kind of preparation do you have to do for a role like this? I’m curious how a native New Yorker prepares for a play that takes place in the South at a time when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens.

BG: This play is set in Nashville, Tennessee in 1961, a time where historical events were happening in the South during the civil rights movement. The play is dealing with the changes about to happen in America. For African-Americans, it was definitely a trying time. They had to find strength in God and their community and fight for their basic rights as an equal in society. My grandmother grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and also Gadsden -- my great-grandmother did as well. My grandmother marched with Martin Luther King and had dinner at his house. I have been very privileged to have her as a living resource not only for my family’s history but for African-American history. She has told me stories about being chased down dark, dirt roads by the Ku Klux Klan while traveling home from a march. I’m definitely going to lean on my grandmother to hear the wisdom and stories she has to share.


TS: How is the character of Bowzie relevant to you? I’m wondering what you find most challenging or exciting about the role?

BG: Bowzie Brandon and Brandon Gill are two young black men who are trying to support their families while achieving their dreams in a world that tells them that they are less than equal. I think I can learn from Bowzie. His courage and determination to face adversity and continue forward are inspiring. We are both trying to achieve a level of success for the benefit of ourselves and for our loved ones as well. He’s so headstrong. Being accepted to Fisk University in 1961 on full scholarship is such a great accomplishment for him. And he risks it all to fight for his rights, for the rights of his family and, most importantly, the rights of his children. I’m excited to explore his emotional depth and the thought process that takes him from the university to a penitentiary. So many African-American leaders have found themselves unjustifiably sitting in jail cells for days and weeks at a time while participating in the civil rights movement. Parchman Penitentiary was famously known for being the worst of them all. That’s something that I also have to research -- what life was like there.


TS:How do you understand Bowzie’s relationship to his wife Evelyn? How do you understand their dynamic?

BG: I think Jiréh has given these characters the gift of humanity. Bowzie has been lucky enough to marry his best friend. Evelyn is his rock, his support system. At times she’s stronger than him. I think all the relationships that Bowzie has in this play are beautiful. He’s actually known Sally the longest. Sally’s like his older sister. And then, of course, he has this wonderful relationship with Tony, which I think is very important as well, because it’s important to show audiences the trust and camaraderie that black men, especially in that time period, had with one another. There is an unspoken code of support and respect.


Eboni Flowers and Brandon Gill in rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: Why do you think Evelyn gets so upset at Bowzie and some of his choices? Is she afraid of this movement that’s happening?

BG: I think it’s a bittersweet situation. Evelyn is being a wife, and I think she’s worried about her family. She’s worried about her husband and the hateful things that will happen to him if he goes on this bus ride. She’s less afraid of the movement because the movement is necessary. She stands behind the movement itself. She does not stand behind the possibility of losing her husband and the father to her unborn child. Her struggle is knowing that she has to let Bowzie be a man, but it comes with a big price -- jeopardy of their family unit.


TS: There is an idiosyncratic rhythm to the way Jiréh’s characters speak. I’m curious how you view it?

BG: I think the dialogue in the play speaks to the history of African-Americans and how we tell stories -- how we use words. The characters are exuberant in their language. Sometimes the dexterity of Jiréh’s language reminds me of the characters in August Wilson’s plays. There is a cadence in their individual voices. And I love how they choose to impersonate people in their community. There’s a scene where all four characters are reenacting things that happened at church. They imitate these glorious characters like the pastor and some of the elder sisters who worship there. I think Jiréh does a wonderful job speaking to the authenticity of African-American culture and the unique way we use language as storytellers.


TS: What do you look for from a director when you’re working on a play?

BG: I want to work with a director who has a collaborative vision. I think it’s important. I think it’s important that a director knows what he or she wants the audience to come away with. Are we making a comment on the present times? What are the themes that we are discussing and interpreting? I’ve had the great pleasure to work with some awesome directors. They all had amazing imaginations and encouraged a collaborative spirit to make sure we’re all on the same page so we can tell the best story possible.


Margot Bordelon, director of Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Photo by Jenny Anderson


TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

BG: I surround myself with a community of friends who are also artists. I relish celebrating them and the work they do. When you surround yourself with artists who are hardworking and who have strong determination to change the world with their art, that is always inspiring and motivating. I also love teaching. I’m always inspired by my students and the classes that I teach or individuals that I coach – I try to use my art to entertain, educate and inspire.


TS: I’m wondering what you would say to a young person who says they want to have a career in acting. What advice would you give?

BG: The first thing I stress is training. I tell everyone I work with, “If you want to be an actor, you have to train. Hone your craft.” Playwrights and Directors want to invest in someone who has invested in themselves. I also tell young people, “You have to believe it’s going to happen. If you don’t believe it’s going to happen, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It only takes one audition to change your life. One random audition on a Tuesday at 3:15 can change your life forever.” If you believe that that audition is coming or that project is coming and you’re going to meet someone like Jiréh who is going to write a great role like Bowzie for you -- then sooner or later -- it’s going to happen.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket opened at The Black Box Theatre on October 5, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket

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