“This isn’t a funeral.” The exuberant rallying cry of Douglas Lyon’s Chicken and Biscuits, directed by Zhailon Levingston, which debuted on Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre on Sunday, is “It’s a celebration!”
A comedy about universally felt tensions during family gatherings, billed as Broadway’s “dishiest” musical, is based on a funeral custom staged in a Black church.
Unfortunately, although Chicken and Biscuits promises hilarity and mayhem, the play’s formulaic screenplay seems more like a drawn-out sitcom, resulting in a sedative effect. It feels stale, from its archetypal characters to the play’s droning final act dedicated solely to resolution, forsaking an earnest reflection on family dynamics in favor of cheap laughs at the expense of its etched characters and faux intimacy from its more tired dialogue, globby lines that seem solely designed to induce “awws” from audience members.
The idea is that a Black family holds a celebration of life for Grandpa Bernard, or B, arranged by his son-in-law Reginald (Norm Lewis) and his wife, first lady of the church and Bernard’s oldest daughter, Baneatta, with purple curtains and a painted picture of Black Jesus with dreadlocks to boot (Cleo King). Despite Baneatta’s best efforts, unpleasant people abound – at least in Baneatta’s self-righteous views – including a mystery caller whose calls Baneatta want to avoid at all costs.
Baneatta’s younger well-endowed sister, Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), arrives with her equally lovely, though somewhat annoying, 15-year-old daughter La’Trice (Aigner Mizelle). Meanwhile, Kenny (Devere Rogers), Baneatta and Reginald’s only son, sends his white, classically inept lover, Logan (Michael Urie), who is uncomfortable and appealing (“This is like a reverse Get Out,” Logan complains, afraid to attend the family gathering).
Kenny’s suppressed sister and a mirror image of Baneatta, Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), is also there, slamming Kenny for his theatrical “friend” and avoiding any and all talk about her ex-boyfriend, who left her for a white lady.
Even tender moments like the family’s eulogies for their beloved Grandpa B are broken by outmoded, groan-inducing gags (in one scene, a perplexed Logan asks Kenny why Black churchgoers are screaming.) Is the entire joke about “white people being so clueless?”?
The sassy, colored-hair opposites to Baneatta and Simone’s snooty demure, Beverly and La’Trice, seem particularly taken from outmoded demonizations of Black women who don’t bow to respectability norms. There’s room for Baneatta to genuinely dislike her sister’s antics, such as Beverly flashing her cleavage at their father’s funeral, but Beverly and La’Trice are robbed of that possibility when compared to the duality that Baneatta gets to embody – a judgmental woman, yes, but one acting under the immense pressure of keeping her family together – The sole hint of nuance occurs when La’Trice reveals her missing father to Simone, a revelation that not only appears random but also has no bearing on the rest of the narrative.
Chicken and Biscuits is strangely fragmented and tonally confusing, with weak subplots that are predictably resolved. Its predictability and overexplanation of Black customs (such as the many reminders that Black funerals may, in fact, be celebrations) seem well suited for Broadway’s typically white audiences, particularly when cultural jokes about Logan’s Jewish background go unanswered.
However, the play seems to be divided between having white audience members laugh at themselves via the character of Logan, and having them be particularly welcomed as gawkers to Black traditions. Reginald’s preaching at the funeral ceremony is met with applause from the mainly white audience for its ostensibly outlandish and theatrical nature, but most Black people would recognize it as a fairly frequent feature of Black religion.
Is it OK for audience members to laugh with us or at us?
The play’s major secret, the arrival of one mystery caller, is so predictable by the conclusion that it isn’t enough to save the play from its earlier staleness. Even the play’s remaining concerns – will Baneatta accept Kenny and Logan’s relationship, will Baneatta and Beverly’s rivalry be resolved, what is causing Simone’s pain – are overshadowed by Levingston’s farcical directing, which trades in excess.
Among the play’s flaws, there are a few moments that stand out. For one thing, the play may be amusing, especially when the cast members respond to one other’s boldness. The beautiful set, created by Lawrence E Moten III, gives the tale a warmth and realism that the writing and directing lack.
With particular references to Marshall-Oliver and King, the ladies of Chicken and Biscuits add balance and humor to their roles, notably Marshall-Oliver, who is given surprisingly little to work with. Levingston’s directing also brings out some much-needed tenderness, especially in the opening sequence between Logan and Kenny and the amusing-yet-touching scenes between Beverly and La’Trice.
Chicken and Biscuits may be a hilarious and joyful break from Broadway’s darker issues if you go in with the proper expectations, but the play eventually seems lost, with comedy taking precedence over narrative. The play is, on the whole, not quite cooked, much like the play’s eponymous meal, Chicken and Biscuits, which Grandpa B was famous for bungling.