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The Journey to Byhalia, Mississippi: Part One

On January 13th, playwright Evan Linder and Chicago director Tyrone Phillips were able to go to a talkback at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis for Byhalia, Mississippi. The packed Wednesday night house was incredibly responsive and stayed for almost an hour after curtain call discussing the story, the characters, the choices they made and what the play meant to their community. The audience included family members of Butler Young Jr. who expressed how grateful they were that he was being remembered.
12553016_10156732281412355_7864455237099234603_nThis was the second trip down South that Tyrone and Evan took in the past month. Last week, Evan and Tyrone both took time to detail the experience of their day trip to Byhalia, MS on December 23rd.

Part One is Evan’s story:

The Journey to Byhalia, Mississippi: Part One
by evan linder

January 6th, 2016

Byhalia Program FrontGet rid of that stupid epilogue!” was the first thing an audience member told me after the first public reading of my play Byhalia, Mississippi in September 2014. I winced, knowing she was right.

The truth hurts.

Byhalia tells the story of Jim and Laurel Parker, a Mississippi couple whose marriage crumbles when their newborn baby is black, the result of Laurels brief affair the year before. The “stupid epilogue” I wrote flashed forward eighteen years and briefly glimpsed Laurel’s grown son Bobby visiting his grandmother. In it, Bobby was assuring her (and his white playwright raised in Collierville, TN, a mere eight miles north of Byhalia) that he had survived the dramatic circumstances that greeted his birth and had made it through okay. Hearing this sentimental piece of wish fulfillment as the final scene was not what this audience member wanted to hear less than a month after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. At best, it was hopelessly naïve. There was no way to know if Bobby Parker would be okay, especially not if raised by a white mother in a town that will not even acknowledge its role in one of the longest civil rights boycotts in Mississippi history in 1974.

Organized by the United League of Marshall County and its founder Skip Robinson, the boycott challenged the death and attempted police cover-up of an unarmed, twenty-one year old black man named Butler Young Jr. shot by a Byhalia police officer. The success of the Byhalia boycott was even covered by Time Magazine in 1975, but the current history section on the website for the Byhalia Chamber of Commerce does not once mention the boycott, the United League or Skip Robinson. Seventeen paragraphs of history without mentioning a boycott that went on for over a year and bankrupted many of the businesses in town is a glaring omission and evidence of underlying tension to this day.

I did not set out to write a play that directly addressed the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I knew that wasn’t my story to tell. When I conceived Byhalia, I wanted to write about home, marriage and forgiveness. However, what spurred me to actually start writing the play in January 2014 was revisiting articles about George Zimmerman’s acquittal the previous summer for the killing of Trayvon Martin. I asked myself if Jim Parker, a character I was growing quite fond of, was capable of acting exactly as Zimmerman had. Could he ever see a young man in a hoodie walking across the street in Byhalia first and foremost as someone else’s child? Taking it a step further, could he ever see the child as his own?

Writing Byhalia taught me above all to listen more. I started by listening after that first talkback, deleting the epilogue that night and never looking back. It didn’t matter how much I wanted that ending for Bobby. It didn’t feel true. After listening to Tyrone begin our first Chicago rehearsal in November by recounting his experience attending the massive Michigan Avenue protests over the killing of Laquan McDonald the day before, I was even more convinced that “stupid epilogue” had no place in a play set in 2014.

I listened to Kim Ford, who lives in Chicago and is the niece of Skip Robinson. She met me at The Den Theatre this past November, chatting for an hour about her uncle, the United League and growing up in Mississippi. I was delighted to learn that Kim was also an actor, and it was an enormous honor when she accepted a role as part of the Chicago team putting Byhalia up this week. There was so much to listen to over the past year that kept informing and changing this story of a white Mississippi couple and Laurel’s sudden responsibility of raising a young black man in America.

I’m still listening too.

On December 23rd, Tyrone and I took a day trip down to Byhalia along with Memphis journalist Wendi Thomas. We walked the town square and snapped some photos of Tyrone in front of the barber shop where I had taken the picture of the young Byhalia man two years prior.

tyronebarberOut of the car not even five minutes, we saw a Byhalia police officer stop in the middle of the road next to us. As I walked up to the window of the officer’s SUV, I noticed Tyrone slowly take several steps backwards and Wendi immediately hold up her phone, pressiing record. “Just visiting”, I told him. Why were we taking pictures? Could we not see how this could look suspicious?

“You were taking pictures of our bank!” he said as I squinted to try and make out the name of the Citizen’s Bank down the road. He wanted our IDs. He began calling in our license numbers over his radio.

IMG_7937Detained for ten minutes, I noticed Tyrone and Wendi remaining remarkably cool. As I gave him my ID, I was unable to hide my frustration, intrusively leaning through the SUV window. I was never once told to back up or that I was getting too close. I immediately recognized the behavior I was able to get away with in a way I would not have registered before I started listening more than a year ago.

I dialed my drawl up a few notches as I spoke to him. “Sir, my folks live just up the road in Collierville. We’re in town from Chicago, we just came down to walk around and take photos. C’mon. There’s nothing going on here.”

On the short drive back to Tennessee, I needed to listen again. “What was that like for the two of you? Y’all were so much cooler about that than I was.”

“I was terrified,” Tyrone said.

I’ve been asking myself as Byhalia nears its premiere what the proper response is of a white artist who wants to stand as an ally of #BlackLivesMatter. My first instinct was to start writing a play about Skip Robinson. I’m fascinated by his story and cannot believe that the man who founded the United League, led the Byhalia boycott, stood up to the Ku Klux Klan in Tupelo and went on to lead countless other successful protests against police brutality in 1970’s Mississippi was not more widely known. Thankfully, I found Dr. Akinyele Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back this summer and was able to read an incredibly detailed history of that summer in Byhalia. Dr. Umoja’s personal accounts of working with the United League made it quite clear to me that Skip Robinson’s story is not mine to tell. I will never fully comprehend what Tyrone meant when he said “I was terrified”, especially not when I can get away with putting on a southern drawl and leaning into a squad car with a pissed off look on my face when detained by a Byhalia police officer. To truly honor Skip’s legacy, his story deserves a writer like Dr. Umoja who would immediately understand everything that “I was terrified” meant to Tyrone.

The most important things I learned on the journey to Byhalia:

  • Listen.
  • Tell the truth about who you have been and who you want to be
  • Mistakes hurt to admit. Admit them. Don’t ignore them.
  • Don’t try to speak for people of color or expect them to explain things to you.
  • But if they take the time to do so, LISTEN. There are some powerful stories there.

The story I am telling is Jim and Laurel Parker’s story: southerners whose inability to tell each other the truth and apologize for their past mistakes causes anger, pain and provides little hope that things will get better.

That’s my story. It’s also the story of Byhalia, Mississippi.

And Byhalia, Mississippi.

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