Theater review: Chicken & Biscuits
The latest offering by Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo - “Chicken & Biscuits” - is a comedy which centers on a funeral. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
It might be assumed that funerals bring out the best in families mourning and eulogizing the departed. Playwright Douglas Lyons, however, takes a closer and more nuanced look at the members of one African American family gathered to bid a final farewell to their beloved family patriarch.
Through the direction of Dr. Quincy Thomas, Lyons’ script is vividly brought to life on the Farmers Alley Theatre stage in a humorous and revelatory production that promises to delight and surprise audiences and make some memorable emotional connections.
The play begins on the day of the funeral with a prayer for guidance by Baneatta Mabry, played by Demetria Thomas, daughter of the late minister, Bernard Jenkins. After her husband and current church minister Reginald Mabry, played by Von Washington, Junior, attempts to console his unhappy wife, it becomes clear that Baneatta’s need for prayer and consolation is related more to dreaded interactions with family members attending the service than with the grief over her recent loss.
It turns out that her apprehensions are well justified. The stormy relationships between her relatives are the product of jealousies, resentments, rivalries, and unfinished business. This friction is what sets Lyon’s play in motion, and this Farmers Alley production apart.
A major reason for the show’s success is the emotional range that the performers bring to the stage. Although the comic antics of some characters in “Chicken & Biscuits” might at first glance seem stereotypical, each cast member finds the fragility and backbone within their respective roles to endow it with depth and believability.
Darlene Dues, as Baneatta’s flamboyant sister Beverly, initially presents a sassy, strutting huntress stalking her next husband. She is cautioned by her older sibling about an irresponsible display of cleavage. Later in the show, however, Dues’ character grows into responsibility as she gathers herself to preside over an act of family reconciliation.
Growth is also a characteristic of the actors who portray Baneatta’s adult children. This is evident in a carefully crafted scene of sibling reconciliation.
Marissa Harrington, as daughter Simone, laments her experiences in dating black men. Harrington is a gifted physical actress who communicates the pain of longing for a wedding day that Simone believes will never come. She rises above past disappointments, however, in a heartfelt discussion about love’s ups and downs with her gay brother.
Avery Kenyatta, as Kenny, delivers a quiet, thoughtful perspective on his own experiences in dating black men. In the process, Kenyatta shows the development of his character’s resolve to embrace and acknowledge his current relationship with his white, Jewish boyfriend in front of his family. In doing so, he reminds his sister of the strength he learned from her.
The play’s final confrontation involves Baneatta, her sister Beverly, and an urgent need to resolve estrangement among siblings. In this emotionally charged encounter, Demetria Thomas and Darlene Dues invoke and feed on the visceral passion of their father’s gospel ministry to achieve a state of grace and tolerance that allows the family to grow and move forward.
This riveting scene concludes with Baneatta’s exhilarating transformation into someone who accepts the differences of others. When asked how she feels after being relieved of her burden, Thomas’s single word response is tinged with surprise and amazement at her own turnaround: “Free!”
It’s a word uttered with a feeling that encapsulates the joy at the end of the late Bernard Jenkins’ journey and applies to the family he leaves behind.
It’s an answered prayer, and a fitting benediction to a post funeral feast, that provides sustenance for the soul far beyond the meal of chicken and biscuits referenced in the play’s title.