There are eight shows by Black playwrights scheduled on Broadway. This is my fifth. Every other piece portrays African Americans as specific, multifaceted people. Chicken & Biscuits, on the other hand, serves up all the negative, cliché attributes we’ve been trying to get away from for years. The supposedly middle class family often speaks in street vernacular accompanied by wildly exaggerated hip hop movement. Were the play better written or directed I might credit it with an attempt at All in the Family-like satire. Not until 85 percent of the way in do we experience what passes for credibility and even that’s cliché.
In a house of worship that looks like a grade school art project with crayons and cardboard (Lawrence E. Moten III), branches of a family have gathered for the funeral of its patriarch and former church pastor. In attendance are:
The deceased’s two daughters, Baneatta Mabry (Cleo King) and Beverly Jenkins (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). King moves robotically and seems to tune out when not speaking. Oliver, as directed, speaks idiomatic-caricature-Black to the Nth degree. The actress is focused and consistent. Baneatta is married to incoming clergyman Reginald Mabry (Norm Lewis whose next role we hope offers more opportunity). The character begins real, then inexplicably acts like a crazy man behind the podium. Beverly has dragged along her 15 year-old daughter La’Trice Franklin (Aigner Mizzelle- unconvincing as a teenager, she swallows half her lines in an effort to play super brat).
Reginald’s more believable side of the family is represented by Simone Mabry (Alana Raquel Bowers), calm in the eye of the storm, and her spineless brother Kenny (Devere Rogers) attending with his white boyfriend Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie who’s entertainingly made a career of droll gay men). Beneatta treats Logan as if he’s invisible and consistently misremembers his name. Despite promises, Kenny caves in her presence leaving his partner on the sidelines. All this is humanity undefined by color.
We’re only missing surprise attendee Brianna Jenkins (NaTasha Yvette Williams -sympathetic and appealing) in the show’s late arrival of heart. The family fights, snipes at one another, shouts out during the eulogy as if at a revival meeting, discovers the dead man’s secret, and eventually, if temporarily, reconciles.
Sometimes, out of nowhere, a character tunelessly sings his/her lines. During one segment, a group freezes, then resumes action. Reginald’s eulogy begins aptly nervous but launches into out of character Las Vegas evangelical with no explanation. Baneatta’s cell phone rings constantly through the first part of this too long, two hour play. She literally pounds at it never turning the damn thing off or answering. Who was it? Logan has all the good lines which play on his homosexuality or religion. Playwright Douglas Lyons apparently wrote Fraggle Rock for television. This has many of the same hallmarks.
Director Zhailon Levingston perceives only two types of people, those who spout colloquialisms and move like St. Vitas Dance and those who don’t. No other personal qualities define the family. So much of the piece is over the top, it’s difficult to care when something potentially moving occurs. Levingston’s fourth wall comes and goes. The audience collectively says “AWW” when something warm occurs or “No” in objection or “Ahhh” when a moment is made clear. One woman felt free to call out encouragement to a character.
I am apparently in a minority, but I can’t help thinking that depiction in this piece regresses us 20 years instead of moving forward.
Women’s costumes by Dede Ayite are, one assumes, meant to be awful and inappropriate. In this she’s excelled.
Photos by Emilio Madrid
Opening: Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Cleo King, Norm Lewis and the company
Chicken & Biscuits by Douglas Lyons
Directed by Zhailon Levingsto
Circle In The Square
235 West 50th Street