Review: Douglas Lyons' CHICKEN & BISCUITS at the Asolo Repertory Theatre

It Runs Thru April 13th!

By: Feb. 19, 2023
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Review: Douglas Lyons' CHICKEN & BISCUITS at the Asolo Repertory Theatre

"Laughter is not only contagious, it's reassuring that you're not alone in this world." --Christoph Waltz on a recent episode of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher"

There is so much audience laughter during Douglas Lyons' CHICKEN & BISCUITS at the Asolo that we sometimes may miss the more tender, heartfelt moments. This is one rollicking kick-ass show, miraculously directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones, with a stellar cast, all but one of whom are black. There are moments of euphoria, where the audience, like the dazed fish-out-of-water Logan, wants to shout out "HALLELUJAH!" at any given instance. There are moments where we see ourselves and our own families, no matter the color of our skin, and nod our heads in understanding and empathy. And there are moments so over-the-top that we appreciate the gall to create these risky sequences, some that teeter on caricatures, and we find ourselves unsure if those overdone sit-com moments, of which there are several, add or take away from the experience.

CHICKEN & BISCUITS is theatrical comfort food--like, yes, chicken and biscuits. It goes down well, you get plenty of creative carbs, and you are assuredly satisfied, maybe even overstuffed, when it's over. But it's a menu that may not be for everyone's tastes. It's both goofy and meaningful, exaggerated and real, crazy and poignant. It's hilarious as hell, so come prepared to laugh. A lot.

CHICKEN & BISCUITS is a popular comedy but it's also an important show, especially at this venue, especially now. For more than sixty years, the Asolo has stood tall as the premier theatre company in Florida, always the top of the line technically and performance-wise; if there are such things as theatrical Super Bowls, then they would have won them most every year in the state of Florida. I first saw their company on their 1980 tour Rashomon, and it changed my life. I was a teenager, and experiencing that show in my high school gym, I realized that I wanted to live my life in the theatre forever. For more than half a century, the company has been known for celebrated productions of comedies and dramas that oftentimes can compare to any professional productions anywhere (yes, even on Broadway). And under the decade-and-a-half helm of artistic director Michael Edwards (who is retiring this year), they have expanded their vision. But they also can't help being perceived as prim and proper, even when they do strip-off-your-clothes shows like Hair. Their plays can be like educational experiences that we know are good for us, like taking vitamins, but are also of the highest quality and mightily entertaining. If we go with food comparisons: They're caviar and crème brulee, not chicken and biscuits.

And then a play like CHICKEN & BISCUITS comes along, and it's the exact opposite of so many of their previous shows. (This is not Ibsen.) Production-wise it's top of the line as usual, but the play itself, centering on the hysterical shenanigans of a proud black family in New Haven, Connecticut, is something you just don't usually see here. It's like the Asolo Rep finally let down its hair.

CHICKEN & BISCUITS takes place at the funeral of the beloved patriarch of the Jenkins family, a black family in a black church where past regrets, in-fighting and secrets, including one earth-shattering revelation, emerge. The title is a reference to their father's favorite food: "He couldn't cook it, but he sure could eat it."

On the zeitgeist front, there are so many current pop culture allusions and modern terminology peppering the script that this play could act as a modern-day time capsule: Wakanda, Facebook, selfies, dabbing, Drag Race, vaping, "bruh," Get Out, TikTok, Jerry Springer as a verb ("Jerry Springered"), "fam," etc. There's a reason Mr. Lyons' play is so popular these days, one of the most-produced new works in the post-pandemic era. It's certainly a butt-load of fun, and the playwright definitely has his finger on the pulse of modern society, especially when it comes to black family life. But he paints this world with the broadest strokes possible, and commercial as the show is, it may not be everyone's cup of spiked Dr. Pepper.

The performances are, in a word, astonishing.

Leading the cast is Tracey Conyer Lee as Baneatta Mabry, the patriarch's oldest daughter and the character with the biggest arc. It's not hyperbole to strongly claim that this is one of the finest performances you will ever be privy to see. At one point, mentioning her son's boyfriend, her displeasure is so great that she seems to cough up a fur ball. You watch as she slowly melts into acceptance, especially when she and her sisters shout "Halleuljah!" as a sort of relaxing mantra; you watch her from rejection, to slow acceptance, finally to surrender and joy. Amid the familial mayhem, she's always real, always in the moment no matter how farfetched the situation becomes. There's not a false note here. She even gets a moment to break free and air-guitar "Smoke on the Water." High school and college Theatre teachers: Get your students off their duffs and get them to the Asolo where they can see and learn from this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime performance!

Equally as good, albeit in a much different way, is Jasmine Rush as Beverly Jenkins, Baneatta's younger sister and "the fiercest aunt to walk a runway!" This is a PERFORMANCE, bigger than life, one that will rock your world. She writhes, struts, bops, dances like she's on fire. A mere line emitting from her mouth is like an aria. Beverly grabs hold of her breasts--her "puppies"--as if they're her life preservers and she's drowning. She steals the stage, especially early on, donning cross-earrings and a very revealing, eye-opening outfit. She's all heart--and breasts, where someone even says that her "titties tap-dance out ya top." She describes Christianity perfectly when she tells her daughter about her deceased father and the funeral: "It isn't goodbye, baby girl, it's see you later..." This is the ballsiest performance you will encounter, over the top and hilarious, leaving you breathless from laughter.

Baneatta and Beverly are two "dynamic black women." As someone says, "You wear it in different ways, but both are fabulous." Yes, they are.

As Baneatta's husband, the pastor Reginald Mabry, La Shawn Banks is spectacular. At the center of the show, he gives a sermon so wild, so thrilling, that it almost had me standing up and gyrating in the aisles. (If this happened to be a musical, it would be the rousing Act 1 closer.) "What is seen is temporary," he shouts over and over, "but what is unseen is eternal." He keeps going further and further, faster and faster, like an out of control carousel. I sat in the audience, my mouth open in awe, knowing I was experiencing something more than just special. In my notebook I wrote the word ELECTRIFYING in all caps. In Mr. Banks hands, it's one of the great theatrical moments I've seen all decade.

There are so many other memorable characters. Selfie-snapping La'Trice, Beverly's daughter played to the teen-tee by Dreaa Kay Baudy, is a wannabe-rapper and the perfect embodiment of a fifteen-year-old (oops, I mean "almost sixteen-year-old"). She's pitch-perfect and wonderfully annoying (as so many mid-teens can be). As the funeral guest and plot-twist, Candice McKoy brings a down-to-earth realness to the part of Brianna. I connected with her quite closely because her situation mirrored my family's in a similar scenario...and her situation somewhat matched my own mother's (I won't say anything more, for fear of giving too much of the plot away).

Ernest Bentley is solid as Kenny, Baneatta's gay son. There's a wonderful heartfelt moment between him and his rather haughty sister, Simone (a strong Imani Lee Williams, who nicely underplays the role to contrast their over-the-top family members...she plays Abbot to their Costello). I love it when they let down their guard, and both Bentley and Willams get their moments to emotionally shine.

Kenny has issues with his gayness when it comes to his mother, and when he brings his partner, "the super white and weird" Logan, to the funeral, he introduces him as a "friend."

As the only white person in the cast, Dean Linnard is quite wonderful as Logan, with snap comic timing and a cartoony physical prowess that had the audience in stitches. I have no issue with the way Mr. Linnard portrays this part, but I have major qualms with many ways the role has been written. Of course I love the idea of the "reverse Get Out" and the differences between white culture and the black culture Logan is wading in ("Bundt cakes," Logan says. "That's what white people do well.") But there's more subtlety with the relationship of Cam and Mitchell on the TV sit-com Modern Family than there is here. There's a running gag where Kenny's mother calls Logan by the wrong name ("Lavender" or "Lucas" or "Lamar"), which seems more at home in the 1970s than 2023; it's like Norman...Is That You? for the Age of TikTok. You wonder what Kenny sees in such a hysterical ignoramus (at least when it comes to the situation comedy at telling what else out there Logan doesn't grasp); what is it about this man that Kenny loves so much? Logan is Jewish and says he's never been inside a synagogue or a church, which is hard to believe and we can suspend our disbelief just so far. You also start wondering if he's ever read a book or seen a movie or even a TV show. He knows so little. Imagine the flamboyance of Emory from The Boys in the Band mixed with the naivete of Enoch Emery (for you Wise Blood fans out there); who is this guy, Mork from Ork? Logan's so clueless that he makes Joey from Friends look like Encyclopedia Brown.

Stand-out scenes include a slow-motion fight scene between sisters where eventually they use crosses as weapons and start sword-fighting with them, bringing to mind Benjamin Braddock's great crucifix-as-defense use in The Graduate, but even more extreme. Mark Rose is the "Violence Consultant."

Technically this one astounding piece of work. You keep wondering if the Asolo can keep outdoing themselves with their sensational sets, but here they are, outdoing themselves again. Antonio Troy Ferron's set, the centerpiece being of the church, is sensational, where different rooms pop up throughout and we're never confused as to what's what and who's where. Jared Gooding's lighting design and Dede Ayite's costume designs (especially with Beverly's revealing garb) are outstanding. Rasean Davonte Johnson's projections (programmed by Michael Commendatore) are out of this world, especially the stained-glass window effects featuring a black Jesus and black angels. There are also moving projections that are effective, as when Kenny and Logan are riding in the back of a car. It's awesomely accomplished, like watching the old POV videos of driving tests where YOU are the driver, but is it completely necessary? You get the feeling it's the Asolo technical team flexing their hefty tech muscles and showing off...because they can.

Seeing so much black representation onstage and behind the scenes is quite heartening and bodes so well for the future.

The real star of the show is director Bianca LaVerne Jones, who is able to pull off a play and performances that are so extreme, that hold nothing back, but still connect with our humanity. She gets gutsy work from her cast and directs with an abundance of strength and confidence, giving Mr. Lyons' ideas of family the best showcase that his words can find.

As zany as much of it gets, CHICKEN & BISCUITS is the opposite of edgy: It's as comfy in its way as woolen mittens on a cold, cold day. It's sometimes too safe. It's sometimes forced in its feel-good ending. And it's certainly predictable. But it's also a hell of a lot of fun, and it's a welcome breath-of-fresh-air arrival at the pristine Asolo. It brings new meaning to the term "audience-pleaser." Still, if you like your plays Strindberg-cerebral and stodgy, then this is not for you. If you like to experience something cutting-edge and life-changing, then this probably isn't your trip. But if you want a rousing good time at the theatre with a black family that will greatly entertain you and connect with you (whoever you are), then yes, you've found your home. I say this with supreme confidence: It will be hard-pressed if not impossible to find a better production of CHICKEN & BISCUITS anywhere!

CHICKEN & BISCUITS at the Asolo Rep runs thru April 13th.

Photo by Cliff Roles.


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