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Byhalia, Mississippi ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
June 13, 2019 

Evan Linder’s play has all the elements of a hackneyed soap opera starring a young, broke, white couple with adultery issues and a bible-thumping mother in bitterly acrimonious conflict with her daughter and son-in-law, Jim.  If not for Linder’s uncompromising storytelling, an admirable and passionate cast, and superb directing, it would seem like a story we have heard all too many times with the exception that this one comes with sharp incisors and a propensity for equal doses of poignancy and hilarity.

(L-R) Caroline Neff, Jack Falahee, and Cecelia Wingate ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Overdue and big as a watermelon, Laurel cuddles up with Jim who is excited about the prospect of a son, “Are you my stupid baby?” he asks sweetly, ear to Lauren’s swollen tummy.  Even Laurel’s mother, Celeste, whose late husband was a serial philanderer and doesn’t cotton to her out-of-work son-in-law, can’t wait to be a grandma.  “The only thing I care about is this baby.”

(L-R) Blake Morris and Jack Falahee ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

A few years before, Jim had a brief fling.  Laurel reluctantly forgave him, and, still very much in love, they recommitted themselves to their marriage.  But when the baby is born and is black, Jim loses his mind, blaming his best friend, Karl, who happens to be African American.  Celeste’s reaction is mortification about what the townspeople will think of her and her daughter, insisting Laurel “get rid of it”.

(L-R) Blake Morris and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

There are so many spoilers that I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the story takes twists and turns so serpentine that it proves totally unpredictable as to where the characters’ paths take them.  Do we like them?  Not always, but we are kept in jocular hysterics by both their Southern-ness and their messy lives.  Celeste’s drawl and quirky backwoods metaphors alone are priceless.  To put a frame around it, Linder, who is white, references the ghost of civil rights activist, Skip Robinson, leader of a 1974 boycott of businesses in Byhalia after the shooting death by a local policeman of a young, unarmed black man named Butler Young, Jr.  Young’s memory was ignored by Byhalia, and still is.  Linder is determined to correct the town’s selective memory and provoke a conversation about race relations.  You will see that there is racism on both sides here, and emotional disconnects that are a mile wide.

(L-R) Jack Falahee, Blake Morris, and Aime Donna Kelly ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Byhalia, Mississippi is a story about truth, forgiveness, commitment and racism – real or imagined.  It is also a  sweet, crazy tale of hope and redemption set in a blip of a provincial town caught up in a changing world.  As Laurel, who commits to raising her baby, tells her mother, “Nothing ever changes unless people like you watch it happen.”

Highly recommended.  A perfect cast beautifully directed by Kimberly Senior.  You will be glued to your seat, if you don’t keel over from laughter.

With Caroline Neff as Laurel, Cecelia Wingate as Celeste, Jim Falahee as Jim, Blake Morris as Karl, and Aimé Donna Kelly as the surprise character, Ayesha.

(L-R) Jack Falahee and Caroline Neff 2 ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg

Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, Costume Design by Jen Caprio, Lighting Design by Jennifer Reiser, and Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel.

Through July 7th in the Terrace Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit

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