If you think they don't write black family television sit-coms any more, you obviously haven't been to the Ensemble Theatre where Douglas Lyons' Chicken & Biscuits plays through October 15. With minimal updates we could be in front of our dusty TV set watching a more adult version of The Bill Cosby Show, The Jeffersons, or even Sanford and Son.
Lyons' family comedy is both snappy and sappy. Snappy in its quick-witted dialogue, but sappy in its Hallmark card sentiments and obvious plotting.
The set-up is, oh, so familiar. Patriarch Bernard Jenkins. pastor of the black evangelical St. Luke's Church in New Haven, Connecticut, has died, and his extended family gathers for his funeral, or “celebration,” as everyone likes to say. Each one is on the outs with another. Everybody's got a problem.
Sisters Baneatta (Rita L. Hughes), the proper daughter who's married to the next preacher, her husband Reginald Mabry (Werner Richmond), and Beverly (Liz Rachelle), the improper daughter whose bitch-slap persona cries out for attention and always gets it. It doesn't help her case with Beneatta that her ample pushup bosom enters the room before she does. Beverly's the life of the party, and if you know what's good for your sanity you'd best get out of her way.
Baneatta and Reginald have two children – anorexic Simone (April Wheat) who has just lost her financé at the altar through his cheating on her with a white woman, and Kenny (Avery Vonn Kenyatta), the gay son who brings his frazzled Jewish white boyfriend Logan (Wesley Whitson) to the funeral. Only Reginald supports this relationship, all the others are suspicious of this pairing or downright rude and condescending. Beverly's daughter La'Trice (Krystal Uchem), 15 going on 35, is the teen smart-ass, butting in inappropriately and always asking for gift cards for her upcoming birthday.
The conflicts are mostly played for laughs, but Lyons has a deft touch when confessions pop up, as they do in this type of play. There's a final secret revealed at the funeral which threatens the family structure, but we know how everything will end. This is a sit-com after all, and there's got to be a happy ending for everybody. You will not be disappointed. The entire tribe sits down to eat chicken and biscuits, Bernard's favorite food – all conflicts resolved and everyone reconciled within a few hours.
The family may be joyful, but we're a little letdown. The characters are fun to watch but seem throwbacks to a much earlier time when difficult problems are solved with a hug. It is refreshing to see forgiveness so easily consummated, yet the only difficulty for this Black family is whether Bernard's corpse should wear a canary yellow tie. Homophobia, eating disorders, family loyalty, inter-race relations are brushed aside lightly for the easy laugh.
Neil Simon made a fortune with this sort of writing, but Lyons isn't there yet. His comedy sprawls all over the place. It's much too long and unnecessarily padded. This needs split-second timing and no pauses. Even a beat or two throws the comedy off balance. The testimonies at the service go on endlessly without any sort of bearing to the knotty plot. Yet the play catches needed fire when Reginald delivers his eulogy as if channeling a tent preacher at a revivalist chautauqua. His slow buildup merges into a rousing sing-song, call and response, as he skitters across the floor, possessed by the spirit, to deliver a tremendously effective and funny out-of-body sermon. Richmond finds the lightning. Almost as if extemporaneous, the scene is pure joy, the best in show. The follow-up is cute, too – a slo-mo fight between all the family when the mysterious stranger Brianna (An'tick Von Morphxing) reveals her secret. Act II begins with a photo montage from the fight that elicits genuine laughs.
The cast is pleasant, with Rachelle stealing every one of her scenes as sex-pot Beverly, although she could stand to be a bit less shrill when doing so. Wheat is ideal as put-upon Simone, as is Uchem as big mouth La'Trice. And Whitson, of course, allows Logan all manner of tics and habits that befit his paranoid outsider. Everyone acquits themselves admirably as they go with the light-hearted flow. It's playwright Lyons who supplies the extraneous turbulence.
Chicken & Biscuits continues through October 15 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $47-$55.