Review: Byhalia, Mississippi (Cue6 Productions)

Byhalia, Mississippi - Claire Armstrong, Joshua BrowneCue6 presents Evan Linder’s racially-charged family drama Byhalia, Mississippi in Toronto

Byhalia, Mississippi is a resonating and intense work of art that had me gasping on the edge of my chair. Lines from this charged play by Evan Linder keep echoing in my mind.

Playing at The Storefront Theatre in Toronto just steps from Ossington subway station, Byhalia, Mississippi also recently premiered in Chicago, Memphis and Charleston, along with staged readings in Birmingham, Boulder and Los Angeles. I’m looking forward to the multi-city online conversation at wpconvo.com that will take place on January 18. It’s a rich, multi-layered story with a lot of historical baggage that calls for discussion.

A much awaited baby is about to be born to a struggling white couple in small-town Mississippi. Pregnant mom Laurel (Claire Armstrong), dad Jim (Joshua Browne), grandma Celeste (Kyra Harper) and black family friend Karl (Mazin Elsadig) are all excited to have a bundle of joy to take care of.

Byhalia Mississippi Byhalia Mississippi Mazin Elsadig Joshua Browne

Byhalia, Mississippi begins with a light opening scene in which Laurel and Celeste poke at each other: “The baby knows you’re still visiting and that’s why it’s scared to come out!” This line, the Oprah joke and so many other snide remarks between mother and daughter had us giggling and relaxed.

And thank goodness the play had a good dose of comedy because the tension soon built up. The story would have been exhausting without the comic relief punctuated throughout, given the event that the couple and their loved ones were not prepared for. What suddenly traumatizes them? The baby who emerges is black, to their horror of varying degrees. This is because Laurel has had an affair with the husband of her childhood friend Ayesha (Virgilia Griffith).

The birth brings deep-seated racism and complicated race relations to light, but we are also called to explore infidelity, the mother-daughter bond, forgiveness and memory. In fact everything gets messy.

Jim distances himself from his beloved Laurel, but not before accusing his best friend Karl of being the father. Celeste, who claims “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” is deeply ashamed of the baby and demands that Laurel get rid of “it.” What will people think? Laurel says her baby is the “most beautiful baby I have ever seen” and has a clear idea of how she will raise him. And the humiliated Ayesha wants Laurel out of town, presumably to preserve her family’s hard-earned status in Byhalia.

Byhalia Mississippi Virgilia Griffith Claire Armstrong

I won’t spoil the ending as you might wonder what ends up happening to the baby and to the broken couple. After the intermission you’ll also see the other layers to this loaded story: what happens to Jim’s friendship with Karl, who has “always tried to take up as little space possible”; what happens to Claire’s friendship with Ayesha, who was called “Puff the Magic Dragon” as a girl; and what happened to Butler Young Jr. in Byhalia in 1974.

For me and my guest, Byhalia, Mississippi is Toronto must-see that is beautifully executed on all fronts. It’s a multi-faceted story in which we are exposed to events, thoughts and words that shake us up and turn us inside out. Hats off to playwright Evan Linder who writes with subtlety, never sounding self-righteous or forthright like someone who reads an Aesop’s fable. Do yourself a favour and make this your first play of 2016.

Details

  • Byhalia, Mississippi plays at The Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor St. W) until January 22, 2016
  • Performances run Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees on Sunday are at 3 p.m.
  • Ticket prices range from $20 to $40.
  • Tickets can be purchased online or at the door. Keep in mind that tickets may be scarce due to limited seating.
  • Latecomers will not permitted to enter until the intermission.

Rehearsal Photo 1 of Claire Armstrong and Joshua Browne provided by Cue6
Rehearsal Photo 2 of Mazin Elsadig and Joshua Brown provided by Cue6
Rehearsal Photo 3 of Virgilia Griffith and Claire Armstrong provided by Cue6