Sitting down for Byhalia, Mississippi at off the WALL’s Carnegie Stage, a number of audience members remarked how similar the stage looked to the set of the TV show Roseanne. It’s an interior of a small, one-story house: couch at center, TV on the floor, tables cluttered with magazines, a compact kitchen and a fridge seemingly stocked entirely with light beer and a single Brita filter. The play’s program tells us that the house’s inhabitants are “loud,” “broke” “proud white trash,” so maybe that label helped usher the comparison. Without wading into the mud of Roseanne’s controversial return to television this year, I’ll just say that the issues addressed on that show — economic stress, race, “real America” — are also confronted here, but it’s way funnier and not so ham-fisted. No one wears a pink pussy hat and the president is not mentioned, but that world still hangs over Byhalia.
The “proud white trash” couple at the center of Byhalia are Jim and Laurel Parker. When we first meet these characters, a very pregnant Laurel is bickering with her mother about the way she eats bananas (too fellatious, says Laurel); Jim is sneaking onto their shed outside to smoke a bowl until Mama leaves. Life is not perfect. Money’s been tight since Jim left his lucrative construction job and there are hints of darkness buried in the family dynamic. But hey, there’s a baby on the way and that’s always an occasion to bury hatchets.
OK, needless to say, that does not happen. The betrayals don’t stay buried for long and shit eventually hits fans. However, the production handles the heaviness with an impressively light hand. Like all good dramas, there’s subtle humor in all the “serious” parts, and underlying tension in all the big laughs.
Mama (off the WALL’s artistic director Virginia Wall) is straight-up electrifying to watch; the one-liner she delivers in response to the banana-fellatio accusation nearly killed me. Brandon Meeks and Erika Cuenca nail it as Jim and Laurel. Laurel’s pronunciation of “Mama” conveys a lifelong, complicated, interdependent relationship; Jim reduces “Laurel” to a single syllable. Lamar Cheston plays Jim’s supportive and hilarious best friend, which may sound a little icky in terms of one-dimensional black best friends, but that dynamic plays out with brutal honesty and no kid gloves. Hope Anthony, as Ayesha, doesn’t show up until the second act and was so good I was hoping for a third act just to let her shine.
There’s a lot to love about Byhalia, but up top is the way the script navigates racial, class and economic tensions without sacrificing the substance of the characters or the story. It’s not about those things, but the story recognizes how those “big ideas” wiggle their way into the lives of Americans in both subtle and explosive ways. It’s a fine line to walk, but this production and these five magnetic actors handle the challenge brilliantly. Go see it.