‘Too Heavy for Your Pocket’ looks at choices during civil rights fight

Playwright Jiréh Breon Holder’s first name comes from a passage in Genesis that reads “The Lord will provide,” and the phrase seems to apply to this young writer.

In the past year, he completed his thesis at the Yale School of Drama, got a job at Emory University and is having one of his plays produced by the Alliance Theatre. ("Too Heavy for Your Pocket" runs through Feb. 26 at the Alliance.)

Somebody up there must like him.

“It’s been almost too much,” laughed Holder, 26, a trim, bespectacled youngster with a shaved-smooth haircut and a sunny demeanor.

Holder hasn’t been waiting for the manna to fall in his lap. He’s been working at his craft since he was an undergraduate English major at Morehouse College. At first, he was planning on being the next Toni Morrison. Then he walked into a theater class, wrote a 10-minute play, saw it performed and heard the applause.

He was hooked. Why sit in an attic and write in solitude when you can collaborate and join the party?

At Morehouse, Holder became a Kenny Leon Fellow, interning in the Alliance’s literary department. At Yale, he won the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, which solicits plays from the leading graduate programs, then selects four finalists and one winning play. The winner receives a full production as part of the Alliance Theatre regular season.

Past winners include Tarell Alvin McCraney ("In the Red and Brown Water," "Choir Boy"), whose play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" inspired the Golden Globe-winning 2016 film "Moonlight." Another winner, Kenneth Lin, is currently a writer for the Netflix series "House of Cards."

Holder’s play had its beginnings in conversations with his grandmother in Nashville, who was a striver and a doer, who went to beauty school and opened a day care center and struggled to make a way for her family. Her friend from church was a Freedom Rider, who gave up the opportunity to attend Fisk University to join the protests of the civil rights era.

“Fisk University didn’t let their students join protests,” Holder said. The school worried that the activists would attract retribution, which was a reasonable concern. “Some Freedom Riders talk about whole families becoming targets.”

Holder was fascinated with the stories, and went to Nashville to interview his grandmother and other friends and family members and to comb through photographs and records at the courthouse. “I spent three weeks over the summer immersed in 1961 Nashville,” he said.

“She was delighted I was spending more time in Nashville,” Holder said of his grandmother, “but I don’t think she realized how special her vantage point was.”

His grandmother’s reaction to the protester’s decision was something along the lines of “that idiot,” Holder said. In her words: “He threw away his education to hop on a bus.”

Holder’s play recognizes that his grandmother had good reason for her attitude. Tending her own garden helped create a world in which her daughter would become the first person in the family to graduate from college and her grandson would attend Yale University. His grandmother, clearly, was doing it right.

“Too Heavy for Your Pocket” refers to the burdens we take with us on our journeys. It acknowledges the transformation in American society brought about by civil disobedience. But it also sees the other side of the coin.

“Having a family with dignity in Nashville is just as important as spending 30 days in jail to protest injustice,” he said. “This play is about the family left behind.”

Does that mean that it’s acceptable to study Ibsen at Yale while your friends are on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Holder said that as he made the decision to pursue what some might call an impractical degree in fine arts, he took that question seriously.

“I had to believe that the tools I would learn would be effective for fighting injustice.”


“Too Heavy for Your Pocket”

Through Feb. 26. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays (except for Feb. 19). $20-$42; $10, teens. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.

The four finalists from Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition will be heard in free staged readings Feb. 8-10 at the Alliance Theatre. The events include a special screening Wednesday, Feb. 8, of “Moonlight,” based on a play by 2007-08 winner Tarell Alvin McCraney.