By Tulis McCall
This show succeeds in spite of itself. This is sit-com writing and stock characters from start to finish, but the actors take it all in stride and walk hand in hand to the finish without flinching. It is we who do the flinching. And the laughing. There seems to be an equal balance of both. Think Black-ish or Modern Family. Some moments work and some don’t.
Funerals and weddings are always the stuff of legends. This story, however, is paper-thin and full of pesky problems that have a deeper darker side we hardly notice. The script does not tarry long enough with any one of them for us to put our feet up and sit a spell. The patriarch of the family, Bernard, is being buried today and his son-in-law, Reggie (Norm Lewis) is the new pastor stepping into some enormous shoes. Once this is established there is a cornucopia of story lines, none of which becomes the single story that pulls the wagon train forward. There is Kenny and Logan’s (Devere Rogers and Michael Urie respectively) relationship begging to be acknowledged. There is the Baneatta (Cleo King) and Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) sister-sister thing. There is the Devere-Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) brother-sister thing. The husband-wife thing. The granddaughter La’trice (Aigner Mizzelle) who is just trying to follow along with the grown-ups and ends up being the smartest person in the crowd thing. There is the mysterious phone call that starts the play. There is the added character who is not needed. And then there is the mystery of why Norm Lewis is given so little to do (with the exception of his preaching at the funeral). Not to mention the mystery of why Chicken and Biscuits has anything to do with anything. This author searched far and wide for elements to include and ended up with a gaggle of competing stories.
Intriguing as some of the duets were, none ever gave way to shape the flow of the story. Especially THE question that Logan is thinking about and for which he gets some excellent advice from La’trice. We never see it materialize, and it is perhaps the one question that is at the very center of this family reunion. Although it is hard to tell.
In addition, technical difficulties are everywhere. Circle in The Square is an enormous thrust (or circle in the round) stage and it is not always easy to hear the actors. Audience members on one side of the stage might catch something that folks on the opposite side cannot. That was often the case here. As well, the blocking has to keep in mind the audience that is extreme audience lot or right. The blocking here gave most of these people a view of the actors’ backs and not much more.
The actors, however, navigate this hodge podge with generosity and grace. This is a fine ensemble that shares the stage and the spotlights. They bring this story to life and make it sparkle. While you might drift off the trail, these performances will being you back again and again. Let us hope you will be seeing them again.
CHICKEN AND BISCUITS by Douglas Lyons, Directed by Zhailon Levingston
Cleo King as Baneatta Mabry, Norm Lewis as Reginald Mabry, Michael Urie as Logan Leibowitz, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Brianna Jenkins, Devere Rogers as Kenny Mabry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver as Beverly Jenkins, Aigner Mizzelle as La’trice Franklin, and Alana Raquel Bowers as Simone Mabry.