CHICAGO: The Harvard Crimson, reporting on the shooting of 21-year-old black youth Butler Young Jr. by a white policeman in Byhalia, Miss., described the incident as “a far-reaching and traumatic example of the persisting racial polarization that continues to haunt the New South.”
The article’s date of publication? Oct. 2, 1974.
“If you go back to the first two paragraphs, and you take out the references to Mississippi, and you change the year from 1974—that’s what we’re living right at this moment,” says Evan Linder, whose Byhalia, Mississippi takes its inspiration from the Butler Jr. case and will receive its world premiere on Jan. 8 at the New Colony Theatre in Chicago, where it will run through Feb. 14.
Linder’s play tells the story of Jim and Laurel Parker, a “proud white trash” couple who have relocated to the titular town of 1,302 in anticipation of their son’s birth. It isn’t until after the baby is born that the play’s central conflict becomes apparent: The boy is black, the result of Laurel’s affair with the principal of the local elementary school.
“I had taken a field trip down to Byhalia while I was home visiting,” says Linder, who grew up 10 miles north of the town, “and I saw a kid in a hoodie walking across the street in front of the Byhalia barbershop.” This was during the George Zimmerman trial. “I had already been working on Byhalia by then, and it struck me that that could be Laurel Parker’s son, 15, 16 years down the line,” Linder continues. “And I wondered: Would Jim, if he saw this kid, be able to immediately see him as his own? Or would he see something else—because of where he was brought up, because of how he was raised?”
It’s a difficult, painful question, Linder thinks, but one that ought to be asked—not just in Chicago, where Linder works as co-artistic director of the New Colony, but nationwide. Byhalia will receive four simultaneous premieres—in Chicago, Toronto, Memphis, and Charleston—and three staged readings—in Boulder, Colo., Birmingham, and Los Angeles. After the show, audience members from all seven cities will have the opportunity to meet up online and take part in a live-streamed talkback with the creative teams of each production.
“We want to bridge the gap between film and television and theatre,” says Tyrone Phillips, cofounder of Definition Theatre Company, which is coproducing the Chicago premiere. (Phillips is directing the production.) The play’s multi-city opening represents an effort to replicate the “watercooler moment” typical of popular films and television programs. “The more audiences that see it—the more visible it is—the better,” Phillips adds.
While it doesn’t look like the city of Byhalia will be seeing a production of Byhalia anytime soon, a few members of the town’s chamber of commerce have reached out to Linder to express their interest in seeing the play’s Memphis premiere. Linder took the opportunity to conduct some further research.
While browsing the history section of Byhalia’s Wikipedia page, Linder noticed that 2 paragraphs, out of 10 total, are dedicated to Butler Young Jr. and the town’s history of racial conflict. The official website for the Byhalia Chamber of Commerce, he saw, boasts a history section that, at 17 paragraphs, is even longer.
Butler Young Jr. is mentioned in none of them.
Some things—at least in Mississippi—never seem to change.