It is time for the Mabry family to go to church, and they are taking us with them. Douglas Lyons’ comedy is directed by Zhailon Levingston, who is not only making his Broadway debut with this play but also at 27 is the youngest Black director in Broadway history. Levingston is director of industry initiatives for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which is leading Broadway’s ongoing reckoning with race, racism, and representation.
The occasion for the family gathering in Chicken & Biscuits, which opens Sunday night at Circle in the Square, is the funeral of Bernard, the father of sisters Baneatta (Cleo King) and Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Overseeing the service is pastor Reginald Mabry (Norm Lewis), Baneatta’s husband, who is taking over church-leading duties from his father-in-law and is nervous about measuring up.
Also attending: Baneatta and Reginald’s children, Kenny (Devere Rogers) and Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), along with Beverly’s Extremely-Gen-Z-with-added-Gen-Z daughter, La ’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle), who—when someone says how nice she looks—offers a monotone, “I know,” in response. Kenny’s partner, Logan (Michael Urie), the only white person on stage, is feeling frozen out, comparing his presence to “like a reverse Get Out, and we all know how that ended.”
King, Bowers, Marshall-Oliver, Mizzelle, and Rogers—all excellent—are making their Broadway debuts, or as Rogers puts it in his Playbill bio, “Broadway Debut baby!”
The play, first performed in February 2020 at the Queens Theatre, where its run was cut short by the pandemic, opens as it means to go on—soapily and dishily, with the intimation of a giant secret being held by Baneatta, who is frantic to keep it a secret as the day of revelations, confrontations, harsh words, and inevitable reconciliation unfold. The family is a broiling keg of other unspoken resentments waiting to blow as the big reveal awaits its turn.
Baneatta is regal, the queen of the family—fiercely protective, fiercely judgmental about Beverly’s OTT-ness, ramrod straight. Reginald loves her, but her stern propriety is contrasted with his open-hearted gentility. Reginald preaches love, and practices it without reserve; Baneatta loves too, but with her own strictly patrolled conditions attached.
Their daughter Simone, dumped by her partner for a white woman, seems initially to have inherited the worst of her mother’s snideness—but Bowers injects her with a believably bruised vulnerability.
Kenny’s secret is that Logan is his boyfriend. Logan rightly notes that Baneatta never gets his partner’s name right: She has called him Lavender, Lentil, Lamar, and Loofah—which immediately for this critic summoned up Agnes Moorhead’s Endora always misnaming Samantha’s Darrin in Bewitched as Dobbin, Durward, and Darryl.
Baneatta’s name-mangling seems to be a sharp reminder that she does not see Logan, or respect her son’s sexuality and relationship. It is odd the play never really examines this as it is foregrounded as a central issue at the start. There is a resolution—a welcome one, but also a fast one.
This is a play of many lessons—not just what Reginald preaches as pastor, but one for each family member at odds with another or the world around them. Reginald strangely floats above all the mess around him, with a beaming smile and maybe gifted with some kind of divine premonition everything will work out.
Kenny recalls a trip as a little boy to New York to see The Lion King with his grandfather, who told him, “You gon’ be Simba one day.” This meant a lot to Kenny, who tells Simone, “Growing up in our house everybody clung to their bibles, but I clung to the closet. And from my closet the only gay joy I could see was happy, self-loving, free spirited. White boys. They had it all. No one told them they were a sin, but every Sunday morning I was reminded I was. Logan was the first man to knock on my closet door and pull me out. It wasn’t his skin, it was his love.”
Marshall-Oliver plays with Beverly with a fizzing, watchful ferocity—as glammed up and free-speaking in her frock and attitudes as her sister is buttoned up in her physical and emotional clothing.
Two hours is a long time to sit with no intermission, and yet for all its broad comedy and drama and kinetic set pieces to keep our collective attention, it is the smaller scenes in the play, the subtler moments between characters, the quieter confessions, which command the most attention.
Mizzelle is particularly brilliant as La ’Trice, on one level a stroppy teen, on another a kid who would just like a dad, and on another the canniest person on stage. There is a really delightful scene with her and Urie which folds in acceptance, race, boundaries, and a little bit of blackmail. It is deftly written and played, featuring two family slightly outsiders—the grouchy teen and the white gay boyfriend—trying to find their place while also seeing each other. The unifying theme as the play heads to its conclusion: Everyone on stage needs to somehow let go.
As a venue, it’s always a treat to see what designers—in this case, Lawrence E. Moten III, again making his Broadway debut—make of Circle in the Square, in such various shows as Fun Home, Once on This Island, and Oklahoma. The amphitheater makes anything immediately more intimate and immediate, as reflected in the audience’s responses to Chicken & Biscuits. The lighting (Adam Honoré) and sound (Twi McCallum, the first woman of color sound designer on Broadway) meld both church and theater spheres in their cavalcade of effects.
The big family secret of Chicken & Biscuits will go unrevealed here, but it should be said that NaTasha Yvette Willams has an extremely tricky thing to do—a late entry into the play, a very different character and tone to everyone else—and still makes her presence not just felt, but deeply felt for everyone on stage still at odds. (Williams is also a founding member of Black Theatre United.) It will not spoil anything to say there is a happy ending; this is a proudly audience-pleasing play, which—the night this critic saw it, at least—left the audience audibly very happy indeed.