Immediate Family Tackles Being Gay and Race Relations Within a Family

The set-up:

The siblings of the Bryant family return to their roots in the home they were raised in, a large, attractive house in racially-integrated Hyde Park in South Chicago. The occasion is the imminent marriage of one son, but another son, gay, arrives with his lover of two years, though he hasn't come out to his family. Complications ensue.

The execution:

The father is deceased, and the older sister, Evy (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) lives in the house. She is married, but estranged from her husband, and has a strong, almost maternal feeling for her younger siblings. Tony (Kendrick "KayB" Brown) is the incipient bridegroom, and Jesse (Adrian Porter) is the gay son, now living in Minneapolis with Kristian (Steve Bullitt), who is Swedish, a photographer, and his roommate and lover.

A bi-racial half-sister, Ronnie (An'tick Von Morphxing), is an artist living in Europe, who has returned for the wedding. Nina (Florence Garvey) is a close friend of the family and a very out lesbian. They are all good, but Garvey is especially delightful, filling the stage with exuberant energy and rich humor. Her reunion with Jesse is hilarious, and her interest in the voluptuous Ronnie is direct and very amusing. Brown as Tony matches Garvey in great body language, high energy and comic timing. Von Morphxing is compelled to carry out the running gag of bringing an alcoholic beverage onstage with every entrance - this is less amusing than it may seem - and she brings a larger-than-life persona to the role, as required, and carries this off with bravura style.

The first act is largely a comedy, and the antics on stage are vivid and convincing, as we see a close-knit, loving family, with problems but also a well-developed capacity to savor life. The second act explores the problems of gaydom, and of being white in a black milieu, and the sledding can get a little heavy. Evy is convinced that being gay is a choice, not a condition, and that man and woman belong together, to make babies. And Tony can accept that Jesse has a lover, but balks at him being white.

The set by James V. Thomas is handsome and functions well, as a living room-dining room-kitchen combined open area, with an enclosed porch to one side, used often by family members to retire to for confessions or confrontations. The repetition of these, one after another, is a bit formulaic, but the exchanges ring true. The most important exchange is between Kristian and Evy - this is played on the central stage, and is the least satisfying, as the playwright, Paul Oakley Stovall, tries to squeeze into a few minutes changes that might take months or even years in real life. Stovall is also an actor, and a cabaret performer, and is gifted at capturing the rhythms of speech. He is to be commended for tackling a complex subject, for creating interesting and credible characters, though he does turn to sentimentality for the ending.

The comedy is directed by Eileen J. Morris, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre, and she has done a wonderful job in creating the brisk pace of real life, and of bringing to the fore the engaging joie de vivre of many of the characters. The verdict:

Gifted actors bring wit and high energy to some contemporary questions, and create a warm, loving family, each member different but compelling, and their exuberant good will and rich humor make for delightful entertainment. Immediate Family continues through October 20, Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. For information or ticketing, call 713-520-0055 or contact www.ensemblehouston.com.

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