Byhalia, Mississippi, a play written by CofC grad Evan Linder, debuts in Charleston and three other cities this weekend, which is something of an anomaly for play premieres. “It’s really tough to get a play produced and have a lot of people interested at the same time,” says Linder. Perhaps the play’s subject matter, the question of race relations in the South, seemed fitting for each city — Chicago, Memphis, Toronto, and Charleston most of all. Byhalia is the story of white trash couple Jim and Laurel, whose lives experience a bit of upheaval when Laurel gives birth to a black baby, the result of her affair the previous year.
“It’s a drama through and through,” says Linder of Byhalia. The co-artistic director of award-winning Chicago theater company The New Colony, Linder is best known for his play, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, an absurdist comedy which debuted in 2014. Needless to say, Linder thought Byhalia may be a tough sell for theater companies who enjoyed Lesbians. Turns out it wasn’t.
Originally from Memphis, Linder grew up in the South and lived in Charleston during his college years — so he’s seen firsthand the deep-seated racial tension in southern parts of the U.S. This doesn’t mean, though, that one day he sat down and, with ease, created the black characters in his play.
“I kept trying to write the father [of Laurel’s baby], but I didn’t want to write him. I was stuck,” says Linder. He met with one of his friends, an actress, who helped him piece together the roles of Ayesha and Karl. “They’ve grown the most,” he says of the characters. “I wasn’t capturing them from a place of experience. It’s hard to speak from an experience I’ll never have,” he adds. So the actors playing these roles, Kikii Layne and Jeffery Owen Frelon Jr., “boldly and wonderfully told me they knew the characters better than I did.”
This lesson on listening isn’t just confined to Linder’s own life — he hopes the play’s premiere across North America will start a larger conversation on race. “I hope people are ready to listen,” he says. They’ll get the chance to, not just in the play’s various venues, but on Mon. Jan. 18 when every audience member can participate in an online talkback about the play.
Linder had had the idea for Byhalia in his mind for a few years but it was during the ice storm of winter 2014 when “the spark” happened. Linder couldn’t leave his house, he lives in the windy city after all, and one day he went into a “Google spiral” about George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
“I thought, ‘How could that man not see someone’s child?'” says Linder about Zimmerman’s shooting of 17-year-old Martin.
It was this troubling question that he integrated into the character of Jim, Laurel’s boyfriend. “I put that weight on him,” says Linder, who plays Jim in Chicago’s version of the performance.
After writing the play, and performing one of the roles, Linder says he’s tried to keep himself removed from each theater’s interpretation of Byhalia. “I hope each city finds their own story,” he says.
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