Beverly Jenkins doesn’t wear black to her father’s funeral. “We already Black! We should be honoring my Daddy in style, COLOR! Hell, canary yellow was his favorite, and he wore it like a pimp.” Bernard Jenkins was not a pimp but a preacher, and Beverly is the most colorful of the family members who have gathered at his old church in New Haven, Connecticut for the funeral.
That’s the setting for “Chicken & Biscuits,’ a broad, sentimental comedy opening on Broadway tonight. It’s hard not to root for it.
Yes, the play feels readymade for a series TV adaptation. Its characters are familiar types, and their relationships with one another unfold according to a formula: Tension followed by confrontation followed by reconciliation. But it’s also full of laughs, performed by a great, eight-member cast that includes popular Broadway pros Norm Lewis and Michael Urie, as well as five performers making their Broadway debuts, including Ebony Marshall-Oliver, a standout as Beverly. And, underneath the formula, Douglas Lyons’ play offers a clear-eyed look at what one character calls a “family in its purest and most fragile form.” If their love for one another winds up strengthening this fragile family and all its individual members in a way that is….let’s not call the play unrealistic; let’s just say the swift and happy resolutions are something that might not be happening in your own family… it’s the way anybody would wish things turn out.
As the curtain rises, Norm Lewis portrays the goodly pastor Reginald Mabry who is taking over Bernard Jenkins’s congregation and will be delivering his eulogy. It’s not a coincidence that he’s married to Bernard’s daughter: Baneatta (Cleo King) is a proper Christian woman who wears Sunday-gone-to-church hats, and disapproves of her more freewheeling sister Beverly, a hairdresser in Atlanta who dyes her hair blue and wears a pushup bra, that shows off what she considers her pride and joy, which she has oiled, much to her daughter’s disgust. (Dede Ayite’s costume designs nail the characters without their having to say a word.) For all her free spiritedness, Beverly disapproves of her teenage daughter La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle) who is almost as colorful as her mother, but in a different way: She gets in everybody’s business and always says what she thinks.
The two sisters get right at one another:
Beverly: …You been nasty and bossy to me, since we were tiny girls. And it took me decades to understand why, but I done figured it out. You’re jealous. I’m the younger, thinner, and prettier sister-
Baneatta: Beverly, what do you have for me to be jealous of, huh? I own a home, you rent a two bedroom. I’m a tenured professor with a husband and two cars. While you couldn’t keep a man if you paid him to stay. I’ve earned two degrees, while you’re a college drop out. All I’ve tried to do is push you towards the path Mama and Daddy wanted for us.
A more experienced playwright might have found a more artful way to present their resentments, and reveal their background. But Lyons is savvy in giving Baneatta’s profession that turns her into something more than a stereotypical church lady.
Reginald and Baneatta’s two adult children also make the trip to New Haven. Their son Kenny (Devere Rogers), a New York actor, has brought along his boyfriend of four years with the over-the-top Jewish name of Logan Caleb Leibowitz (Urie.) Kenny is determined to proclaim his love to his family, but is still cowed by their disapproval of his relationship. The specific ways Baneatta manifest this cold shoulder is a shtick that probably shouldn’t be as funny as it is.
Kenny’s older sister Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), also disapproves, not because he’s gay but because Logan is white. Simone is smarting because of a recent breakup. Her Aunt Beverly has some blunt advice for her: “They say the best way to get over an ex, is to get under the next. BAM!”
The eighth and final character is Brianna (NaTasha Yvette Williams), who shows up two-thirds of the way through the play, at the end of the funeral service. I won’t reveal the details, but her appearance is supposed to be a bombshell, a major turn in the plot. It doesn’t come off that way, though. “Chicken & Biscuits” is driven not by an overall plot but largely by a series of two-character scenes of nearly every conceivable pairing, which are meant to be either hilarious or heartwarming, and often both, and usually result in some kind of new understanding. Among the least likely pairings, and funniest, is a scene between Logan and his boyfriend’s teenage cousin La’trice, not because of the script, involving an overheard conversation and a weed pipe, but due to the masterful comic performances of Michael Urie — who is well-known as one of New York theater’s best physically expressive comedians — and Aigner Mizzelle, who is a revelation; a recent theater school graduate making her Broadway debut.
Mizzelle is one of the three Broadway cast members (including Marshall-Oliver) who are holdovers from the original production of Lyons’ play at Queens Theater, a 30-year-old community-oriented performing arts center in the borough of Queens that has never before transferred a play to Broadway (and to make matters even more dramatic — the production debuted at the Queens Theater on February, 2020, less than two weeks before the pandemic shut it down.) Lyons, too, is making his Broadway debut as a playwright (He’s been on Broadway as a performer.) The director of the Queens Theater production, Zhailon Levingston is now making his Broadway directorial debut at the age of 27, the youngest Black director in Broadway history; he is also the director of industry initiatives for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. “Chicken & Biscuits” is the third of eight plays scheduled to open this season on Broadway written by Black playwrights about African-American experiences. (The first, “Pass Over,” is finishing its Broadway run on the day that “Chicken & Biscuits” is opening.) All this is likely to encourage theatergoers to wish for its success. It also felt relevant when, at the end of “Chicken & Biscuits,” all the characters sit down for a downhome meal of chicken and biscuits. This was the deceased pastor’s favorite meal. He didn’t cook it perfectly (actually, Simone says, “B was a wonderful grandfather, but a horrible chef.”) But, the family seems to be saying, that didn’t much matter, because it was done with love.
Chicken & Biscuits
Circle in the Square Theater through January 2, 2022
Written by Douglas Lyons
Directed by Zhailon Levingston
Running time: two hours with no intermission (this was the running time the night I saw it, contrary to the announced running time)
Tickets: $69.50 to $225.50
Scenic design by Lawrence E Moten III, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound design by Twi McCallum, wig, hair and makeup design by Nikiya Mathis
Cast: Cleo King as Baneatta Mabry, Norm Lewis as Reginald Mabry, Michael Urie as Logan, Alana Raquel Bowers as Simone Mabry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver as Beverly Jenkins, Aigner Mizzelle as La’trice Franklin, Devere Rogers as Kenny Mabry, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Brianna Jenkins.
Photographs by Emilio Madrid