Chicago Theatre Review
An Exciting, Probing World Premiere
Byhalia, Mississippi – The New Colony
Set in the sleepy, fading town of its title, “Byhalia, Mississippi” uses a striking plot point to launch its probing investigation of American race relations. Jim and Laurel Parker – a recently married couple who are, in their words, “proud white trash,” the type who revel in their country leanings and scoff at political correctness – are shocked when Laurel gives birth to a black baby boy. The result of a brief affair, the baby’s race and origins throw the Parker’s marriage into turmoil, with Laurel’s feisty mother (Celeste), Jim’s best friend (Karl), and, in a delightful twist of plotting, the wife of the baby’s father (Ayesha) all sounding off on the controversy in equal measure.
The latest play from Evan Linder, whose earlier work includes the hysterical “5 Lesbians Eat a Quiche,” “Byhalia” is a wonderfully informed, authentic play, one that educates the audience on Byhalia’s unique past (anyone know who Butler Young, Jr. is?) and the subtle racial tensions that it continues to inform. Much of that realism comes from Tyrone Phillips’ direction and John Wilson’s spectacular set, which not only captures the dated furniture and weather-worn wooden siding of the Parker’s country home, but even the gravel outside their front door, which the audience walks across when entering the theater.
Under Phillips’ direction, there is not a weak actor in the cast. As Laurel, Liz Sharpe is likable and infuriating in equal measure, a Hester Prynne of sorts who stubbornly insists on raising her baby on her terms; as Jim, Linder doubles as an actor, and brings a considerable charm and, in the play’s second half, intensity to his scenes; as Celeste, Cecilia Wingate is every bit the Southern matriarch we expect her to be, with religious conviction to boot; and as Karl and Ayesha, Jeffery Owen Freelon, Jr. and Kiki Layne are the play’s conscience, the black characters who remind their white counterparts, often in brutal language, just how sensitive the territory is that they’re probing.
Like most world-premiere plays, “Byhalia” would do good from a bit of editing – a number of sequences (particularly when Jim or Celeste are heaping criticisms Laurel’s way) drag on a teensy bit too long, robbing them of dramatic closure – but New Colony and all the players involved are to be commended for fronting such an original, challenging play that only furthers the Chicago theater community’s peerless examination of race in the 21st century.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through Feb. 14, presented by The New Colony at Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave
Tickets are available by visiting www.thenewcolony.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.