Roundabout Underground

Too Heavy for Your Pocket Design Statements

Posted on: November 7th, 2017 by Roundabout


Reid Thompson/Set Design

Too Heavy for Your Pocket is set on a place in between. It is in between the city and the country, between nature and civilization, modernity and the past. Sally and Tony's home is a refuge for our four characters, a safe and warm space of their own making where they can be themselves, hidden and protected from the outside world. Our characters draw strength from the earth and the natural world, and we wanted the set to be both Sally and Tony's home and Bowzie's field, simultaneously. The landscape is burned into the walls, and grass grows on top of the floorboards. We wanted a fully immersive environment that takes full advantage of every inch of the intimate Black Box Theatre, where the audience is literally invited into our quartet's world. The materials and props are inspired by meticulous historical research, but realized with an emphasis on the poetic feeling of the place over accurate historical recreation. As the play progresses, the ugliness of the outside world starts to intrude on our refuge, and we wanted the physical environment to reflect a shift as well.

Model of the set


Valérie Bart/Costume Design

Gordon Parks photo

I wanted to fully immerse myself in the period and culture, so I began looking at a lot of photographs of civil rights protests, freedom riders, school desegregation, but staying away from such recognizable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. I became aware of two photographers of the time, Gordon Parks and Bruce Davidson. While the latter focused more on actual protests, rallies, and clashes, Gordon Parks went to the South and captured how black families and people actually lived. There are collections of color photos that show the effects of segregation and systemic racism, and Parks frames it in such a beautifully heartbreaking way. These were the inspiration for the color palette of the costumes. My design process involves a quirky way of sketching. I like to do what I call “paperdoll-ing.” Essentially, sketching all the clothes that will be layered on a base body, rather than spending the time sketching new poses and re-drawing faces for the same character, I would trace the clothes using a light box and cut the clothes out to layer on top. The varying looks would then be scanned and lightly photoshopped and printed out as complete sketches. It ultimately also became a great tool to discover how a character would wear clothes—layer up or down, buttoned or not, tucked/untucked, etc. It would also get me thinking about quick changes and the tracking of clothing. Edits and adjustments would be vastly easier and faster with just having to re-draw the clothes and not spend the time with faces/hands and poses.

A great example of this was with Bowzie. Even though he doesn’t have many costume looks, he layers up and down his pieces throughout the show in some major character arcs. Margot Bordelon, the director, and I spoke at length about what it meant for him to be barefoot and shirtless, as well as in a full suit. And then to see the suit be taken off, the “stripping” of his humanity and the reveal of his human body when in nothing but underwear. To see the underwear eventually deteriorate over time along with his dignity, and the last image of the once immaculate suit that was supposed to mean so much now crumpled and dirty were important visual storytelling points, which we hope will heighten the experience for the audience

Bowzie's costume design

Jiyoun Chang/Lighting Design

Although we haven’t sat in the same room at the same time, I feel we have been in the same room from the beginning of this journey. We have all been open to new ideas and concepts even though some have joined the journey at different points in the life of this production. We honored what worked in the Alliance Theatre production in Atlanta, focusing on how to transfer those ideas and reimagining how to make them work in a new space. Most of all, we all value the poetic nature of Jiréh Holder’s play, although its domestic set-up is based on naturalism. That lyric naturalism anchored and guided our meetings and led us to a new visual landscape. The new ground plan is simpler and open -- allowing light to perform at its best in poetic, abstract, and impressionistic ways. This new ground plan will heighten the nature of the play, and it also allows for exciting fluidity in staging. Margot Bordelon, the director, and Reid Thompson, the set designer, gave warm and open direction, and Jiréh’s soft and supportive voice in the meetings was helpful for the entire design team to arrive at this crucial point in our journey together.

Ian Williams/Sound Design

On my initial read of the play, I responded immediately to Evelyn, considering how our social/political climate is behaving in its current condition. I felt this strong and radiating tension inside as I asked myself, “Could I leave my family behind to stand up for what I believed was right?” I don’t know the answer to that question because, as a young and privileged man, I still don’t know what my personal thresholds are just yet. That’s been part of my personal journey while interacting with the play. Overall, I am a steadfast believer in the magic and imagination that Jiréh puts on the page. When I hear and read his stories, my imagination runs wild and my heart is moved. When I begin sound research for a show of this nature, I always start with a history lesson. I ask questions like, “What is common knowledge to an American citizen?” or “What is popular in my age group right now?” I create playlists of popular music and listen to the sounds of commonly used appliances or gadgets. In this way, I gain an understanding of what people would hear on a da- to-day basis and move forward from there, letting my heart lead the way. The challenge on any show for me is always finding the balance between responding with my heart and keeping moments honest in the sound design. I know that I am susceptible to having a sentimental response. Being in the rehearsal room is how I avoid this happening. I can respond to the director and actor as the crow flies during the process.


Too Heavy for Your Pocket runs through November 26 at The Black Box Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket

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Brandon Gill. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated, and what made you decide to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you on your journey?

Brandon Gill: I was born in Winthrop Hospital in Garden City, New York, and I grew up on Long Island and in Queens. I wanted to be a singer because my mom sang. My mother was in a singing group called Triche. I would be doing my homework while her group rehearsed in their studio. I was about five years old when I told my mother I wanted to be “inside the television.” So, my mother put me in these musical theatre classes on Long Island. It was a program called Way Off Broadway. At the end of the program, there was a showcase for agents and managers. And that’s when I signed with my manager, whom I’m still with today. I was 11 years old. I went to LaGuardia High School, and I had an amazing experience there. After LaGuardia, I went to The Juilliard School. I was the first person in over 17 years to go straight from LaGuardia’s drama program to Juilliard. A teacher at LaGuardia who had a profound effect on me was Harry Shifman. He directed me in ​West Side Story, ​and he was the one who encouraged and pushed me to audition for Juilliard. At LaGuardia, I also had the good fortune of being taught by James Moody, who was an acting teacher there as well as a graduate of Group 1 -- the first graduating class of Juilliard’s drama division.


TS: Why did you choose to play Bowzie Brandon in Jiréh Breon Holder’s play ​Too Heavy for Your Pocket​?

BG: Jiréh wrote the character for me. I met him in 2014. I was doing a reading of one of his first plays at Yale, and about a year after that reading, he got in touch with me and said, “I wrote this play, and I wrote a character with you in mind. I would love if you did a reading of it.” It’s such a blessing that it’s now being produced by the Roundabout in New York City and I get to be in it.


TS: Rehearsals haven’t begun yet, but will you tell us what you think the play is about?

BG: I think the play is about family, it’s about courage and forgiveness and understanding. Every one of the characters is coming into themselves. Thetwo male characters are coming into their manhood. And the women are on a similar journey. I also think it’s about the ever-evolving human spirit through various trials and tribulations. Jiréh writes with a tremendous amount of heart.


Eboni Flowers, Hampton Fluker, Brandon Gill, Nneka Okafor in Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.


TS: What kind of preparation do you have to do for a role like this? I’m curious how a native New Yorker prepares for a play that takes place in the South at a time when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens.

BG: This play is set in Nashville, Tennessee in 1961, a time where historical events were happening in the South during the civil rights movement. The play is dealing with the changes about to happen in America. For African-Americans, it was definitely a trying time. They had to find strength in God and their community and fight for their basic rights as an equal in society. My grandmother grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and also Gadsden -- my great-grandmother did as well. My grandmother marched with Martin Luther King and had dinner at his house. I have been very privileged to have her as a living resource not only for my family’s history but for African-American history. She has told me stories about being chased down dark, dirt roads by the Ku Klux Klan while traveling home from a march. I’m definitely going to lean on my grandmother to hear the wisdom and stories she has to share.


TS: How is the character of Bowzie relevant to you? I’m wondering what you find most challenging or exciting about the role?

BG: Bowzie Brandon and Brandon Gill are two young black men who are trying to support their families while achieving their dreams in a world that tells them that they are less than equal. I think I can learn from Bowzie. His courage and determination to face adversity and continue forward are inspiring. We are both trying to achieve a level of success for the benefit of ourselves and for our loved ones as well. He’s so headstrong. Being accepted to Fisk University in 1961 on full scholarship is such a great accomplishment for him. And he risks it all to fight for his rights, for the rights of his family and, most importantly, the rights of his children. I’m excited to explore his emotional depth and the thought process that takes him from the university to a penitentiary. So many African-American leaders have found themselves unjustifiably sitting in jail cells for days and weeks at a time while participating in the civil rights movement. Parchman Penitentiary was famously known for being the worst of them all. That’s something that I also have to research -- what life was like there.


TS:How do you understand Bowzie’s relationship to his wife Evelyn? How do you understand their dynamic?

BG: I think Jiréh has given these characters the gift of humanity. Bowzie has been lucky enough to marry his best friend. Evelyn is his rock, his support system. At times she’s stronger than him. I think all the relationships that Bowzie has in this play are beautiful. He’s actually known Sally the longest. Sally’s like his older sister. And then, of course, he has this wonderful relationship with Tony, which I think is very important as well, because it’s important to show audiences the trust and camaraderie that black men, especially in that time period, had with one another. There is an unspoken code of support and respect.


Eboni Flowers and Brandon Gill in rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: Why do you think Evelyn gets so upset at Bowzie and some of his choices? Is she afraid of this movement that’s happening?

BG: I think it’s a bittersweet situation. Evelyn is being a wife, and I think she’s worried about her family. She’s worried about her husband and the hateful things that will happen to him if he goes on this bus ride. She’s less afraid of the movement because the movement is necessary. She stands behind the movement itself. She does not stand behind the possibility of losing her husband and the father to her unborn child. Her struggle is knowing that she has to let Bowzie be a man, but it comes with a big price -- jeopardy of their family unit.


TS: There is an idiosyncratic rhythm to the way Jiréh’s characters speak. I’m curious how you view it?

BG: I think the dialogue in the play speaks to the history of African-Americans and how we tell stories -- how we use words. The characters are exuberant in their language. Sometimes the dexterity of Jiréh’s language reminds me of the characters in August Wilson’s plays. There is a cadence in their individual voices. And I love how they choose to impersonate people in their community. There’s a scene where all four characters are reenacting things that happened at church. They imitate these glorious characters like the pastor and some of the elder sisters who worship there. I think Jiréh does a wonderful job speaking to the authenticity of African-American culture and the unique way we use language as storytellers.


TS: What do you look for from a director when you’re working on a play?

BG: I want to work with a director who has a collaborative vision. I think it’s important. I think it’s important that a director knows what he or she wants the audience to come away with. Are we making a comment on the present times? What are the themes that we are discussing and interpreting? I’ve had the great pleasure to work with some awesome directors. They all had amazing imaginations and encouraged a collaborative spirit to make sure we’re all on the same page so we can tell the best story possible.


Margot Bordelon, director of Too Heavy for Your Pocket. Photo by Jenny Anderson


TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

BG: I surround myself with a community of friends who are also artists. I relish celebrating them and the work they do. When you surround yourself with artists who are hardworking and who have strong determination to change the world with their art, that is always inspiring and motivating. I also love teaching. I’m always inspired by my students and the classes that I teach or individuals that I coach – I try to use my art to entertain, educate and inspire.


TS: I’m wondering what you would say to a young person who says they want to have a career in acting. What advice would you give?

BG: The first thing I stress is training. I tell everyone I work with, “If you want to be an actor, you have to train. Hone your craft.” Playwrights and Directors want to invest in someone who has invested in themselves. I also tell young people, “You have to believe it’s going to happen. If you don’t believe it’s going to happen, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It only takes one audition to change your life. One random audition on a Tuesday at 3:15 can change your life forever.” If you believe that that audition is coming or that project is coming and you’re going to meet someone like Jiréh who is going to write a great role like Bowzie for you -- then sooner or later -- it’s going to happen.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket opened at The Black Box Theatre on October 5, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket

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The Leaders of the Freedom Rides

Posted on: September 22nd, 2017 by Jason Jacobs


See James L. Farmer and other key figures discuss the impact of the Freedom Rides and nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights movement.


James L. Farmer Jr.

JAMES L. FARMER, JR. (1920-1999)

Son of the first African-American to earn a doctorate in Texas, Farmer earned his divinity degree from Howard  University, where he studied of Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolent protest. Farmer co-founded The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1940s.

In 1961 he became CORE’s National Director, making him a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement.Although segregation on interstate buses was declared illegal in 1946, the practice was widely enforced in the deep south.

Farmer conceived of a way to bring national attention to this ongoing infringement. The initial plan was a single  trip on 2 buses with 13 riders—male and female, black and white—beginning in Washington, D.C. and ending in New Orleans. Over the next six months, the Freedom Ride movement would grow to 60 rides by 450 people, with over 300 arrests. As events were televised nationwide, support for the movement grew. Farmer looked upon the Freedom Rides as his proudest achievement, noting that "Bobby Kennedy had the Interstate Commerce Commission issue an order, with teeth in it, that he could enforce.”

Farmer later resigned from CORE leadership and distanced himself as the group became more militant. Under President Nixon, he accepted a position in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, but resigned in frustration. Farmer received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1998.


DIANE NASH (b. 1938)

Diane Nash

Raised in Chicago by a middle-class Catholic family, Nash transferred from Howard to Fisk University in 1959. The segregation she faced in Tennessee led her to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. Nash protested in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins before becoming a leader of the Freedom Rides. After the CORE Freedom Ride was stopped in Alabama, Nash believed it was crucial that the rides continue, so she coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride with the goal of finishing the original CORE itinerary, from Birmingham to New Orleans. Nash recruited and trained the riders, ensuring that all the riders had made a will before getting onto the busses. She also coordinated with national figures and the press. Nash did not actually ride on the bus, but met the group in Montgomery. Here, she helped to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak to the riders. After the Freedom Rides, Nash continued to work for desegregation and voting rights in Alabama. She returned to Chicago, where she works in education and fair housing advocacy.


John Lewis

JOHN LEWIS (b.1940)

The son of tenant farmers from Pike County, AL, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in

Nashville. At 19, Lewis was arrested in protests with the Nashville Student Movement. Lewis joined the original CORE buses, and in Rock Hill South Carolina, he was the first of the riders to be assaulted for entering a whites-only waiting room. Lewis then left the ride several days before crossing into Alabama to interview for a fellowship. Back in Nashville, he learned that the bus he had been on was firebombed in Anniston. He joined the Nashville riders and convinced friends and mentors to join. Lewis stayed with the Nashville group until Jackson, Mississippi, where he was arrested and imprisoned at Parchman Farm.

After the Freedom Rides, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC and became a key leaders of the Civil Rights movement, organizing the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he continues to serve today.



A woman in the back of a paddy wagon.

The Freedom Riders sent to Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) would likely been known of the difficult conditions ahead. Historian David Oshinsky states, “throughout the American South, Parchman farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality.” Established in 1901, Parchman occupied 28 square miles of delta valley land. Approximately 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned in Parchman in 1961. Because the government and the media were watching the situation, they were spared the worst abuses of other prisoners; nevertheless, they were confined in isolation from each other, forbidden exercise, served inedible food, and harassed by the officials. When they sang freedom songs from their cells, the guards seized their mattresses in retaliation. Despite attempts by authorities to break the spirits of the Freedom Riders, it had a reverse effect of building their resolve and solidarity. The Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman currently operates with a maximum capacity of 3,543, including  minimum, medium, close custody, and death row inmates.


Too Heavy For Your Pocket begins performances at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre- The Black Box Theatre on September 15, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket

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