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‘Byhalia, Mississippi’ shines light on small town America

By Staff | Jul 7, 2017

Whether it’s pronounced “By-HAIL-yah,” or “By-HAY-yah,” doesn’t really matter when life turns upside down, and you’re forced to question everything you’ve ever known. In Evan Linder’s play “Byhalia, Mississippi,” characters – and the audience – will do just that.

Set in the rural town of – you guessed it – Byhalia, Mississippi, Jim and Laurel Parker are about to become parents. The Parkers are broke, proud “white trash.” After the birth of the child, however, the couple and their community get turned upside down when they are forced to confront the town’s racially-charged past, while trying to find a way in the present.

“The play is about confronting who we’ve been and confronting past mistakes. It is about dealing with stuff that is tough to bring to the surface, so they often times remain unearthed,” Linder said. “The birth causes a lot of things to boil over and rise to the top.”

According to Linder, this is the most personal play he has ever written.

“I knew this couple very well, and I knew I had not seen them on stage before in a way that I was happy with,” Linder said. “They are ‘Red Staters,’ they’re from where I’m from. They are lower class and don’t have huge aspirations other than loving each other and having a family. I know and love a lot of those people and they don’t get a fair shake in American theater.”

While Linder said he didn’t set out to write to a specific theme, many quickly emerged while flushing out his characters.

“The themes that emerged were the forms of love, the institution of marriage – whether it is something we really believe in. Obviously race is brought up a lot in the play and is the source of the initial conflict due to the race of the child,” Linder said.

The many themes get their due, but the issue of race is at the core of the production.

“Jim was a character who I love very much. In writing this, I was putting something very heavy on him to deal with. As much as I love him though, I wonder if Jim is able to see a person as someone else’s son, or as just some young black male. I knew that was the key conflict of the show,” Linder said.

Language, more specifically body language, plays a major role in how the characters in Linder’s play interact with each other – and the audience.

“A lot of what I grew up seeing was focused on what the women were saying and what the men were saying when they weren’t saying anything. You learn a lot about who a person is sometimes more by what they don’t say than what they do,” he said.

While many characters in the play must seek forgiveness, it is to be seen whether or not forgiveness can actually be found.

“Forgiveness was a big theme. I had to explore the different ways these people forgive, or don’t forgive, each other. I think a lot of characters have a higher capacity for forgiveness, and others surprise themselves with their lack of forgiveness. But, not just in forgiving, but in asking for forgiveness,” Linder said. “The words we use when we apologize are very important.”

This will not be the first production of “Byhalia, Mississippi,” and Linder said each production brings forth its own interpretation of the play’s message.

“In each reading of the script, people hear and get out of the play whatever they need to get out of it. (With the festival) I wasn’t worried about anyone messing it up. I am very excited to see the differences in this production compared to the others,” Linder said.

Although each audience member will walk away thinking and feeling something different, there is one big takeaway Linder hopes the audience grabs.

“I want the audience to remember the names of these six characters, months down the line. I want the characters to pop to them so that situations in their lives make them think of these people,” Linder said. “I try and write people you don’t want to forget. This is a drama with six characters and no villain – no antagonist. I really hope the best for these people after this play.”

And that hope for a bright future was originally slated to take the stage, but quickly fell on the chopping block.

“There was a version of the show where you got this nice, warm scene at the end where you see what happens – but it was terrible. I didn’t truly believe that everything was going to turn out alright for these people,” Linder said. “I want people to remember Laurel’s son Bobby and be wondering if this boy – with a very stubborn mother, married to a man who only recently began confronting his long held racism – will be alright. I hope that child is alright, but I don’t know that he will be.”

“Byhalia, Mississippi” is directed by Marc Masterson and stars Jessica Savage as Laurel; Hollis McCarthy as Celeste; Jason Babinsky as Jim; Yaegel T. Welch as Karl; and Adrian Kiser as Ayesha. The production opens Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on the Frank Center Stage. Other performance dates include: Sunday, Wednesday, July 15, 23, 26 and 29 at 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday, July 14, 20, 22, 26 and 28 at 8:30 p.m.; and July 16 and 30 at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, call 304-876-3473, or visit catf.org.