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Broadway Reviews

Chicken & Biscuits

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 10, 2021

Chicken & Biscuits. Written by Douglas Lyons. Directed by Zhailon Levingston. Scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten III . Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Adam Honoré. Sound design by Twi McCallum. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Nikiya Mathis.
Cast: Cleo King, Norm Lewis, Michael Urie, Alana Raquel Bowers, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Aigner Mizzelle, Devere Rogers, and Natasha Yvette Williams.
Theatre: Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue - at 50th Street)

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, and Devere Rogers
Photo by Emilio Madrid
"Family is a loaded word," to quote one of the characters in Douglas Lyons' Chicken & Biscuits, a mashup of broad comedy and domestic drama opening tonight at Circle in the Square. If the pairing of styles makes for a sometimes rickety whole, there is no denying that the comic side is often very funny, the dramatic side is often quite touching, and the spirit of affectionate caring speaks volumes to an audience weary of pessimism, anger, and cynicism.

On his website, Lyons speaks of "finding [my] song in the church," and Chicken & Biscuits is decidedly a paradigm of writing what you know. The play takes place in and around a Black church in New Haven, where a family is gathering for the funeral and memorial service of their patriarch, the much-beloved Pastor Bernard Jenkins.

We quickly learn how loaded the word "family" is as we meet Baneatta Jenkins Mabry (Cleo King), Bernard's oldest daughter and wife of his successor, Reginald Mabry (Norm Lewis). As the two are dressing for the service, the prim and dignified Baneatta is very concerned about maintaining the decorum required of the solemn occasion. She takes a moment to say a prayer: "Lord, bless me with your patience to deal with my family; help me keep my eyeballs rolled forward; and Lord, keep me from strangling my baby sister."

Now meet baby sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), the polar opposite of Baneatta in attitude, demeanor, and style. Where Baneatta is dressed for the solemnity of the occasion, Beverly is all snazzed up and ready to partay, her hair dyed blue and her "puppies" barely contained by a push-up bra beneath her Dede Ayite-designed dress that is rather more fit for dancing the night away than it is for a funeral. You can be sure that when these sisters meet up, the comic sparks will fly. And woe betide anyone who tries to get between them, especially the hapless Reginald, who wants to be the peacemaker but who is in way over his head.

Norm Lewis and Cast
Photo by Emilio Madrid
There is much more the playwright has tossed into the mix for the farcical first half of the play. There are Baneatta and Reginald's adult children, Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) who is more like their mother, and Kenny (Devere Rogers) who favors their father. Further churning the waters, Kenny is gay and is in a long-term relationship with Logan, his neurotic, white, Jewish boyfriend (Michael Urie), who has never been welcome with open arms by the family and who Baneatta, in particular, pretends does not exist; the pair performs an elaborately choreographed greet-and-dismiss pas de deux whenever they are in the same room. Then there is Beverly's mopey, sarcastic, yet often insightful teenage daughter La'Trice (Aigner Mizzelle). Collectively, with much credit to the snappy dialog and comic performances, the cast provides a grand fun time for the audience. This family may be over the top, but they are decidedly recognizable as most everyone's crazy family, which gives us leave to laugh all the more.

Segue to the memorial service itself, add a reconciliation scene, and there would be more than enough for a complete play. But before that inevitable reconciliation, Mr. Lyons, the writer, has much more to say about this family, especially about its roots to the late Bernard Jenkins, whom everyone dearly loved and respected.

Here's where the tone shifts, as we transfer from sitcom influences to more like those of a soap opera, particularly the sort that throws in surprising revelations out of the blue. It is important to the unfolding of the second half of Chicken & Biscuits that secrets be kept in place for now. Still, it's giving nothing away to say that it does make for some truly moving moments. But it is difficult to fully connect the two halves of the play, especially as several of the characters have precious little to do in the second part and are given self-contained short scenes and bits of business just to keep them around.

After a short run in 2020 at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadow Queens, halted due to the COVID-19 shutdown, it has been a heady journey to Broadway for a play by an emerging writer. Mr. Lyons, an actor whose résumé includes roles in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and The Book of Mormon on Broadway, has a sure way with dialog and character development, and there is no doubting the audience appeal. As it stands, however, Chicken & Biscuits, running close to two hours without an intermission, would be well served by some reworking in order to find a clearer path to bring together the two disparate halves.