“It’s not a funeral. It’s a celebration!” is the enthusiastic rallying cry of Douglas Lyon’s Chicken and Biscuits, directed by Zhailon Levingston, that opened on Sunday at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. A play about a funeral tradition set at a Black church, marketed as Broadway’s “dishiest” show, is a comedy about universally felt tensions at family events.
Unfortunately, while Chicken and Biscuits promises romp and chaos, the play’s formulaic script feels like a drawn-out sitcom, having a more soporific effect. From its archetypal characters to the play’s droning final act dedicated only to resolution, it feels stale, forsaking an earnest reflection on family dynamics for cheap laughs at the expense of its etched characters and faux intimacy from its more tired dialogue, globby lines that seems solely engineered to induce “awws” from audience members.
With a stage adorned in purple curtains and a painted portrait of Black Jesus in dreadlocks to boot, the premise is this: a Black family has a celebration of life for Grandpa Bernard, or B, organized by his son-in-law Reginald (Norm Lewis) and his wife, first lady of the church and Bernard’s eldest daughter, Baneatta (Cleo King). Despite the iron fist Baneatta tries to keep on the procession, unsavory characters – at least in Baneatta’s self-righteous eyes – abound, including a mystery caller whose calls Baneatta wants to avoid at all costs. Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), Baneatta’s younger well-endowed sister, comes with her equally charming, though slightly obnoxious, 15-going-on-16-year-old daughter La’Trice (Aigner Mizelle). Meanwhile, Baneatta and Reginald’s only son Kenny (Devere Rogers) brings his white, classically inept boyfriend Logan (Michael Urie), whose whiteness is awkward and palatable (“This is like a reverse Get Out,” Logan laments, nervous to attend the family event). Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), Kenny’s repressed sister and a mirror image of Baneatta, is also present, throwing shade at Kenny for his thespian “friend” and avoiding any and all discussion of her ex-boyfriend who left her for a white woman.
For a premise with potential, the show falls flat, with even softer moments like the family’s eulogies for their beloved Grandpa B interrupted with dated, groan-inducing jokes (in one moment, a confused Logan asks Kenny why Black churchgoers are yelling. Like … for real? “White people are so clueless” is the whole joke?).
The specific treatment of Beverly and La’Trice, the sassy, colored-hair counterparts to Baneatta and Simone’s snotty demure feel especially lifted from dated demonizations of Black women not bending to respectability politics. There is room for Baneatta to genuinely find distaste for her sister’s antics, including Beverly displaying cleavage at their father’s funeral, but compared with the duality that Baneatta gets to embody – a judgmental woman, yes, but one acting under the immense pressure of keeping her family together, Beverly and La’Trice are robbed of that possibility. The only shading of complexity comes when La’Trice mentions her absent father to Simone, a divulgence that not only seems random but doesn’t have a place in the story again.
Bloated with thin subplots that are predictably resolved, Chicken and Biscuits feels oddly disjointed and tonally confused. Its predictability and overexplanation of Black traditions (like umpteen reminders that Black funerals can, indeed, be celebrations) feel suited for Broadway’s traditionally white audiences, especially as cultural jokes around Logan’s Jewish heritage go unexplained. But, at the same time, the play seems torn between having white audience members to laugh at themselves, namely through the character of Logan, or being specially invited as gawkers to Black customs. Reginald’s preaching during the funeral service, gains big laughs from the mostly white audience for its supposed outrageousness and theatricality, but could easily be understood by most Black people to be a very common attribute of Black church. Are audience members invited to laugh with us or at us?
By the end, the play’s big secret, the appearance of one mystery caller, is woefully predictable and not enough to overcome the play’s earlier staleness. Even the play’s lingering questions – will Baneatta accept Kenny and Logan’s relationship, will Baneatta and Beverly resolve their feud, what is causing Simone to hurt so bad – feel overwhelmed by Levingston’s slapstick direction, one that trades in excess.
There are moments that stand out among the play’s weaknesses. For one, the play can be funny, specifically watching cast members react to the audacity of each other. The stunning set, designed by Lawrence E Moten III, delivers a warmth and realness to the story that is missing from its script and direction. The women of Chicken and Biscuits, with specific nods to Marshall-Oliver and King, bring balance and hilarity to their characters, especially Marshall-Oliver who is given remarkably little to work with. Levingston’s direction also, at times, brings out much-needed softness, particularly in the opening scene between Logan and Kenny as well as amusing-but-touching moments between Beverly and La’Trice.
With the right expectations, Chicken and Biscuits can be a funny and joyous departure from Broadway’s heavier themes, but the play ultimately feels lost, with humor coming at the expense of storytelling. Similar to the namesake dish that Grandpa B was known for bungling, Chicken and Biscuits the play is, on the whole, not quite baked.