During the "Freedom Summer" in 1961, civil rights activists bussed down to Southern states to challenge segregation. It wasn't an easy decision for everyone, and there were many who chose to stay behind. Jiréh Breon Holder's play "Too Heavy for Your Pocket" takes a look at that conflict.
The play centers on a group of four friends growing up in rural Tennessee. When Bowzie (played by Stephen Ruffin) gets a scholarship to attend Fisk University, he sees his opportunity to improve his family's life. But when he is asked to become a Freedom Rider, he must decide whether to stay in school or risk his and his family's future.
"I was asking my grandmother about her experiences with [the civil rights movement], because she was alive in the 60s," Holder says. "And she said once, 'Yeah, I knew one of those Freedom Riders. He threw his education away to hop on a bus.'"
"It was fascinating to me because that's not how we remember that at all," he says. "It was a complicated moment because he's the hero of the story, not my grandmother. But my grandmother is the hero of my story. She raised five kids and one of them went on to be a college graduate and ... had me who ended up going to an Ivy League program."
"My grandmother was a hero and is a hero," Holder insists. "And it challenged me to find value in that moment for what she was doing. [This play] doesn't wag a finger at someone who decides not to go out into the street. Instead it says 'This is what other kinds of people decided to do during the civil rights movement. What might you be doing with your energy and time?' And I think it invites everyone to think about themselves in the context of a movement rather than just heralding the Freedom Rider or heralding the homemaker."
Holder is the winner of the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda Award, which puts the work of graduate student playwrights on the Alliance stage. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a fellow in Playwriting at Emory University. Holder is also a former Alliance Theatre Kenny Leon Fellow, which makes him the first Kendeda winner with previous ties to the Alliance.
"It's important for me as a writer to return to a city that means a lot to me," Holder says, "and say 'Hey, this is what I learned, these are the things that I'm thinking about. What are you thinking about and how do you feel about this?' And let's sit in this room together and have a dialog about it."
"I just couldn't ask for a more fortunate set of circumstances to have my first professional production," he says.
"Too Heavy for Your Pocket" is on the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage through Feb. 26.