Byhalia, Mississippi Play Review – A True American Drama

Steppenwolf Theater presents The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s hit drama, Byhalia, Mississippi. It is the winner of three 2016 Jeff Awards and returns this summer to Chicago. It features the full original cast (July 22 – August 21, 2016) as part of Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theatre, at 1700 North Halsted Street.

 

The Steppenwolf Entrance

 

This searing new American drama by The New Colony Co-Artistic Director, Evan Linder, directed by Definition Theatre’s Founding Artistic Director, Tyrone Phillips, enjoyed two sold-out extensions during its world premiere last winter at The Den Theatre currently features the full original cast: Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr., Kiki Layne, Evan Linder, Liz Sharpe and Cecelia Wingate.

 

Byhalia was recently honored with three 2016 non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards including Best New Work (Evan Linder), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cecelia Wingate) and Best Scenic Design (John Wilson). The production was also nominated for Best Play, Best Director (Tyrone Phillips) and Best Actress in a Principal Role (Liz Sharpe).

 

The play is performed in the 1700 Definition Theatre, a small, casual, intimate setting for such a powerful play. I found the drama to ring true. It was a reminder of all of the racial tensions in our society today.

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Liz Sharpe and Evan Linder in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

Byhalia is part comedy, part drama and tells the story of a married couple, Jim and Laurel Parker (Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe). They are about to have a baby and are “proud white trash.” When Laurel finally gives birth to her child, the couple is faced with a major life challenge when they discover the baby is black. This challenge, as well as the couples’ personal decisions, set into motion fateful turmoil in a small town, where haunting racial memories of the past come to the present. Linder gives a solid performance as Laurel’s husband and Sharpe is spectacular as Laurel. She struggles throughout the play with self-reflection on her life and mistakes, in conflict with not caring what anyone thinks of her lifestyle choices.

 

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

The play begins with Laurel begging her opinionated, hovering mother, Celeste (Cecelia Wingate) to go back home to Jackson, to give birth to her overdue baby. They seem to have the mother-daughter relationship where they are constantly bickering, but then changes to a rather heartbreaking rapport between the two. Their bond exposes a very realistic image of a dysfunctional family, with good intentions but complicated lives. Wingate’s performance as Laurel’s mother adds just the right touch as a domineering parent, who at the same time, tries to show her daughter how she is addicted to selfish behavior, and does not care about the consequences of her actions, or how they affect the people around her.

 

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Cecelia Wingate and Liz Sharpe in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

I was especially impressed with fellow cast mates Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr. (Karl) and Kiki (Ayesha). Freelon Jr. is Karl, Jim’s best friend since their school days. He offers the interpretation of a good friend who is loyal to the end, always putting up with being the loyal black sidekick of his white buddy. Jim does various things during the play that have Karl start to question just how much of a “friend” he really is after all. One such scene is when Jim, in shock upon learning his baby is black and not white, automatically accuses Karl of being the father.

 

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. and Evan Linder in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. and Evan Linder in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

I also felt that Kiki Layne, gave a very strong, real, and emotional performance as Ayesha, the estranged wife of the man that Laurel conceives her child with. You could see the disgrace and shame she and her children were going through on her face when she confronted Laurel about the affair between her and her husband.

 

Another interesting, yet effective approach, was not revealing Ayesha's husband at all in the play-you never seem him onstage. I would compare it to the famous drama Waiting for Godot: Everyone talks about him, but do we ever actually see him? It adds a bit of a haunting aspect to the play.

 

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Kiki Layne and Liz Sharpe in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

In addition to wonderful acting, the set design also blew me away with its simplicity and authenticity. On a small stage, you see a small, decrepit wooden hut with rocks and grass. This leads up to the hut and the audience is given a view of the inside, which consists of a living room with mismatched furniture and a kitchen with patchy linoleum. You also hear sound effects such as the baby crying in its bedroom, and a car motor starting; you then hear the car driving away into the distance.

 

Something I also found interesting about Celeste: I brought my friend with me (who grew up in the south), and Celeste’s character reminded her of an old childhood friend: an opinionated, overbearing, and very large southern woman. It always amazes me the way we can connect emotionally and psychologically when we see a good drama; it makes us reflect on our own lives and who we are as people. That is what a good drama is capable of and Byhalia, Mississippi accomplishes this with flying colors.

 

Byhalia MS (left to right) Cecelia Wingate and Liz Sharpe in Definition Theatre Company’s and The New Colony’s production of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre.

 

 

 

Photos: Evan Hanover (*Entrance of Steppenwolf Theatre by Jennifer Lunz)

 

 

 

Location: Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted St. Chicago

 

Regular run: Thursday, July 28 – Sunday, August 21, 2016

 

Curtain times: Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm

 

Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 pm

 

Sundays at 2:30 pm.

 

Tickets: $30 - $35. Discounts available for groups of 10+.

 

Tickets are available at the Steppenwolf website or by calling (312) 335-1650. 

 

 

 

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