Chicken & Biscuits is feel-good theater. That might not be obvious, given that we’re gearing up to attend the funeral of Bernard Jenkins, the patriarch of a multigenerational Black family and the former head pastor of St. Luke’s Church. But, as Bernard’s grandson Kenny explains to his anxious white boyfriend, Logan, “Our funerals are more like family reunions. By the end of the night, it’s a full on party.”
This warm-hearted play welcomes folks into its church with arms upraised. Featuring a gifted ensemble of eight performers playing a lovably dysfunctional family, Douglas Lyons’ play fits squarely into the tradition of Broadway family comedies: there are kooky aunts and buttoned up matriarchs; sibling rivalries and rocky romances; fisticuffs and making up; secrets revealed amid laughter and tears. It may not be revolutionary, but under director Zhailon Levingston’s steady hand, we’re served up a satisfying buffet of punchlines and catharsis.
You can find the most intimate Broadway seat in town at Circle in the Square Theatre due to the theater’s thrust configuration, which places the audience on three sides of the set. That’s a great fit for this production, which casts the audience as parishioners at St. Luke’s. The theater is handsomely outfitted to feel like a Black church, with stained glass windows and crosses aligning the theater’s walls, and wooden pews spaced around the pastel-colored stage. (The set was designed by Lawrence E. Moten III, a teacher of mine in undergrad.)
The party starts before the play does. From the moment audiences enter, an on-stage radio plays “Circle in the Square Radio,” an upbeat gospel music station featuring “God’s Greatest Hits.” (Twi McCallum is the production’s sound designer.) Much like Michael Urie’s Logan, I’m an anxious, queer, white Jew who’s only stepped foot in Black churches a few times in my life. I was prepared to feel out of place at Chicken & Biscuits. But the show’s design, coupled with the cast’s great chemistry, primed me to feel like part of the party.
The heart of the show is the tug of war between Baneatta and Beverly, Bernard’s two daughters, who couldn’t be more different from another. Baneatta, played by a grand Cleo King, is the prototypical eldest daughter. Successful and proper, she’s caught in a cage of respectability that leads her to deny her son’s sexuality and saddles her with the weight of her father’s secrets. Her younger sister Beverly (a riotous Ebony Marshall-Oliver) is the life of the party—the “fun Aunt” who wears a revealing dress to her father’s funeral in the hopes of catching herself a husband. Both King and Marshall-Oliver find rich depths in characters that could have been archetypes, bringing the heat to a simmering sisterly feud that threatens to derail the funeral altogether.
Playwright Douglas Lyons knows his way around two-hander scenes. In the opening third of the play, we meet the family members as they prepare to attend the funeral. Our introductions to the various pairings (Kenneth and boyfriend Logan; Baneatta and husband Reginald; Beverly and daughter La’Trice) succinctly introduce wildly different personalities, building anticipation for their inevitable collision. This is when the production is the most interesting—and the least literal. Characters open the set’s pews to reveal vanity mirrors and landlines, shoe polish and other props. Using these church benches to convey cars, bedrooms, and other locales, director Levingston and his design team elegantly convey how the Church underpins the lives of this family, no matter where they go.
Unfortunately, Lyons and Levingston can’t match the force of this delightful opening. When we arrive at the funeral, a creaky transition lugs out a casket and poster board with a blown-up photo of the deceased’s face, literalizing what had been an expressive storytelling canvas into something altogether more conventional—the actual church. While that choice has its pros (the cast directly addresses the audience throughout the funeral service, bringing us into the action), the play’s gears grind to a halt in this overlong middle third, as we settle down for a series of eulogies that had me counting how many more speeches there were to go before the service would end. Case in point: an underused Norm Lewis gets an extended sermon where the repeated, unfunny joke is how much he loves the musicality of his preacherly voice. (It’s never a good sign when one of the play’s own characters calls out his speech as lasting “forever.” And, with a run-time of two hours with no intermission, the show could use a trim.)
That being said, Lyons keeps the jokes coming a mile a minute, and, with the well-timed reveal of a family secret, sets up a tight final third, with a cascading series of resolutions that wraps up the evening’s entertainment in a neat bow. (I smiled when a character finally made use of the Polaroid camera hanging around her neck throughout the show—Chekhov’s Instax.) And after such a long time away from Broadway, it’s a treat to take in work crafted to bring you joy. I felt nourished at Chicken & Biscuits.