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BWW Reviews: IMMEDIATE FAMILY Rises Above Sitcom at the Taper

Immediate Family/by Paul Oakley Stovall/directed by Phylicia Rashad/Mark Taper Forum/through June 7

It is rich yet rare to find a new American play that is at once terribly funny, terribly real and utterly demanding of one's attention. Immediate Family is such a play; its fiercely original way of looking at an American black dysfunctional family is both heartwarming and completely enjoyable. In fact, I found myself looking at this black family and listening to playwright Paul Oakley Stovall's jokes about being from a black family and found myself, although white, identifying thoroughly with the issues at play. The family is black - and much of the humor is unmistakably from black culture - but the conflicts are universal. Under Phylicia Rashad's steady hand, Immediate Family in its West Coast premiere at the Taper is one great big hit.

Evy (Shanesia Davis) resides in the Bryant family homestead in Chicago, still upholding the diehard traditions of her parents, which affect her young brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), who is about to be married and her older brother Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark). Jesse is gay. He has never discussed this with Evy, but, according to Tony, when Jesse tells him that the photographer coming to the wedding Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan) is his partner, "everybody knows you're gay". Evy has always adored Jesse and has wished only the best for him - which of course according to her beliefs, is that he be successful...and straight. To make matters even worse, Kritian is not only gay, but also white... according to a distraught Evy "that skinny white boy".

Ronnie (Cynda Williams), their half sister, a famous artist in Europe, who is also visiting for the wedding, has been estranged from Evy. In fact, Evy, never liked her, as they had different mothers. When Ronnie puts herself in the middle and becomes supportive of Jesse and Kristian, further trouble erupts between her and Evy creating a cat-fight to end all cat-fights. Lesbian neighbor and friend Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) helps out by letting Kristian stay at her place and is liked by Jesse and Tony, but her outgoing, in.your.face personality will only be tolerated to a tiny degree by Evy.

Much is learned the night before the wedding about the value of love, what it truly means and how it should be preserved among family members. Evy obviously has the most to learn, but so does Jesse, Kristian, Ronnie and even Tony, who has kept a deep secret about himself and his

Stovall has written a laugh out loud, laugh.a.minute dramedy which clicks, taking off from the instant the lights come up. Exchanges between all the characters are sometimes quietly intense, but often fiery, often out.of.control, giving the action both highs and lows that a good play should possess.

With director Rashad's keen, experienced eye to comedy, the play flows consistently forward in a 90-minute time frame and boasts a marvelous cast. Davis' hardcore intensity, Williams' independent but caring nature, and Brooks' screamingly funny execution of the hip, never.say.die Nina add much flavor to the proceedings. As far as the guys are concerned, Clark and Bolden come to life with some fun, brotherly love interplay and Sullivan as Kristian brings the perfect sense of awkwardness to this standout stranger. He doesn't know how to behave, but neither does anyone else in this seemingly God-forsaken family.

Special kudos to John Iacovelli for his unbelievably beautiful set design of the old family home in Hyde Park, Chicago. It really adds color and meaning to the play's message about family values and the urgency of some ongoing traditions.

Don't miss Immediate Family at the Taper through June 7 only. It's a very entertaining and moving piece that rises above the level of sitcom, to make us appreciate the give and take of family living.

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From This Author Don Grigware