Love is everywhere in the opening moments of Jiréh Breon Holder’s “Too Heavy for Your Pocket.”
Sally, a sweet and diminutive woman, has baked a pink strawberry cake and stitched up a suit for her husband Tony’s best friend, Bowzie. She’s about to have a baby, and graduate from the Joyce Howard School of Glamour. Tony, worshipful and muscular, calls her “my queen of England.”
Tony can’t read or write, but Bowzie has been accepted by Fisk University, making this an occasion for celebration and a signal moment: He’ll be the first community member to graduate from college, and a provider for his wife, Evelyn, a small-time lounge singer.
But as the Alliance Theatre world premiere unfolds, this veneer of domestic promise will crack to reveal interlacing tensions of the personal and political kind.
It’s 1961, and with Bowzie’s education comes a call to action. Much to Evelyn’s chagrin, he decides to become a Freedom Rider, and his journey to protest the racist South’s segregated school system will prove tumultuous to this close-knit quartet of friends.
Directed by Margot Bordelon, Holder’s play, winner of the 2016-2017 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, begins with a delicate and luminous touch. Holder has a lovely ear for the patois and texture of this milieu, and designers Sydney Roberts (costumes), Reid Thompson (set) and Liz Lee (lighting) evoke the world handsomely.
Holder’s characters are achingly described and nicely articulated by this company of actors: Rob Demery as Tony, Markita Prescott as Sally, Stephen Ruffin as Bowzie and Eboni Flowers as Evelyn.
Bowzie’s mission bears the imprint of classical literature: He is, after a fashion, a warrior on a mythic journey. But because we can’t go with him, he dispatches his reports (from the homefront and later the battlefield) via a series of letters and phone calls that become increasingly overwrought.
At times, the play’s mechanics go adrift. And as tensions mount in Nashville, Holder seems to struggle to find a resolution to his tale, which might remind you a little of August Wilson’s “Fences” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
His language can be soppingly sentimental at times, and the potential for explosive drama gets neatly swept under the rug.
But in Sally’s awakening, the story takes a feminist twist that is gut-wrenching and sorrowful. She is rendered powerless by the racism outside her cozy kitchen, and betrayed by the the people she loves. It’s hard to say which is the more cruel.
What we can say is that Prescott gives a powerful performance, and Demery (so fine as Muhammad Ali in True Colors Theatre’s “Fetch Clay, Make Man” in 2015) is likewise terrific as the easily distracted Tony. Ruffin, a nimble, funny actor, is quite good as the pre-Freedom Rider Bowzie but a tad maudlin in his jailhouse soliloquies (though part of the issue here is the weakness of the material).
Like Wilson, Holder imbues his work with music and melancholy. The revival hootenanny that opens Act 2 is comically delicious, an inspired touch. Other moments take you by surprise, too — as when Evelyn, dressed in a fetching cocktail dress and fascinator hat, sings “Letter Full of Tears.” The song reads like a blues epic for this circle of woe.
Holder, a Morehouse College graduate with an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, is a serious talent who writes with a very big heart. In the end, “Too Heavy” is in some ways just that, weighted down and scattershot. Yet there are so many lovingly crafted miracles in this achingly tender work that you can almost forgive its flaws.
Like Bowzie, Holder is on the cusp of a future that looks big and bright. It’s a tribute to the Kendeda program that we are able to bear witness to his gift.
“Too Heavy for Your Pocket”
Through Feb. 26. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. No 7:30 p.m. performance Feb. 19. $20-$40. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: Marvelous touches, if a bit uneven.