“Sorta looks fierce,” one might say, as the beginning of a long, very full, and exciting week of theatre-going gets going for this frontmezzjunkie. Being the first of seven shows, basically back to back, some Chicken & Biscuits just sounded too tasty and succulent to ignore. So I ordered a plate and sat down looking forward to a festive and filling feast on Broadway. The show was said to be serving up a chaotically hilarious comedy, certain to fill my tummy with deliciousness and laughter. But sadly, as directed with a fun but slow Louisiana-style saunter by Zhailon Levingston (Dixon Place’s Neptune), this Broadway play, currently playing at the intimate Circle in the Square, is half-baked at best. And we all know what happens when we chow down on some not-fully-cooked chicken, not to mention some half-baked biscuits. Yuck, and although the performers are giving it their all, trying to pull out every joke they can find in this somewhat stale sitcom-y script by Douglas Lyons (Apple TV’s “Fraggle Rock“; ATC’s Polkadots), the overly long play shuffles itself around that stage at the same speed as Baneatta, as she powders her nose in those first few precious moments of this two-hour, one-act comedy while cautiously circling this square peg of a play in earnest.
“Jesus knows...” we are told, and as Baneatta Mabry fixes herself up so she’s “not the last Christian in the building” for her father’s funeral, the set-up feels solid, albeit standard and stereotypical. Strongly played by the excellent Cleo King (“Dreamgirls“), the chemistry with her husband, Reginald Mabry, tenderly played by the always impressive Norm Lewis (Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera) feels true, kind, and passionate, with the framework registering as solid as those wooden church pews. But as the family assembles itself, including her sister, the high-camp, fierce Beverly, perfectly portrayed by Ebony Marshall-Oliver (Public’s Ain’t No Mo) alongside Beverly’s outspoken and hilariously engaging teenage daughter, La’Trice Franklin, deliciously and marvelously portrayed by Aigner Mizzelle (Ars Nova’s ANTIFEST), probably the best thing in this show, the tension gathers its steam, as this conflicted family gathers themselves together for this “It’s not a funeral. It’s a celebration!” The flames of sibling rivalry are fully in place, gathering together under those purple curtains and a painted portrait of Black Jesus in dreadlocks in order to celebrate the life of Grandpa Bernard. What could possibly go wrong?
There is also, as the good book (of Theatre) seems to require of stereotypical family get-together comedies, the gay son Kenny Mabry, solidly portrayed by Devere Rogers (RTC’s The Robber Bridegroom), also readies himself for what is in store at that funeral, with his nervous Jewish boyfriend, Logan Leibowitz, meticulously portrayed by Michael Urie (Broadway’s Torch Song) hopefully standing strongly at his side. It’s no wonder anxiety hangs in the air as we listen to Logan play out the day line by line in advance. We know he has a right to be scared. Both find solid authentic engagement with one another, and the jokes as well, but it’s not enough to keep this Becky boat afloat. We see that it’s gonna be a wild ride regardless, pushing forward with opposing characters setting out to penetrate a cultural institution that doesn’t usually embrace the likes of a man like Logan, namely a family funeral at a Black church. Once again, what could possibly go wrong?
There is also the sister of Kenny, the stoic Simone, solidly portrayed by Alana Raquel Bowers (“After Class“) who seems to be the hardest of the bunch to crack. Not because she’s as stereotypically rigid as her mother, but because she is carrying a few uncomfortable secrets of her own, packed tight inside that black dress. And in this type of comedy, we always need a few secrets, and a surprise guest to stand up and speak some truth at the tail end of a funeral. That spotlight role is given to the late-arriving Brianna Jenkins, tenderly portrayed by the talented Natasha Yvette Williams (Broadway’s Porgy and Bess) who throws this celebration into a Jerry Springer circus. At least for a few minutes of silliness, before the straightening out of things arrives, as it must be, to wrap this thing up.
So now that the pieces are in place for this game of family feud, “my chakra is sending an amber alert.” The characterizations that are being laid out before us, as over-the-top as they are, are being performed with some semblance of honesty and authenticity. But the holy structure that has been given, including the plain scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten III (EST’s Behind the Sheet) as well as the solidly comical costume design by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s Slave Play); lighting design by Adam Honoré (CSC’s Carmen Jones); sound design by Twi McCallum (DR2’s …Jingle for Regina Comet); and wig, hair, and makeup design by Nikiya Mathis (Ars Nova’s Rags Parkland), doesn’t find the solid pathway forward. The hymn that is being interpreted here is messy and out of tune, just like that rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“That’s why the puppies are out,” Beverly tells us, and we understand completely. The play needs her bodacious-ness, because, without that, this feast is flat. Even with some of the softer more engaging moments (kudos to Mizzelle and Urie for finding some honest interactions that have meaning and depth), their beloved Grandpa B must be rolling around in his grave at the stereotypical, dated, groan-inducing jokes that are being thrown out with forced desperation at the most inauthentic of moments. It feels like someone is stepping in from the wings with a laugh track at their fingertips, reminding us all that this is supposed to be hilarious. The lines are funny, at times, but the insert feels forced and demanding of us. Are we laughing with them, or at them. Or maybe we are supposed to be laughing at ourselves. I’m not sure, but at certain times, it just didn’t connect intimately with my funny bone. To truly find hilarity, an authentic meal has to be served.
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