Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of Chicken & Biscuits interweaves an intelligent, warm script with overacted stiff caricatures and occasional spots of brilliance. Like all family-centered films, plays, or podcasts, family secrets unfold through screwball hijinks and performative capers.
In this play by Douglas Lyons, matronly Baneatta (Miche Braden) and diva Beverly (Gabrielle Lee) are sisters gathering their semi-adult children: precocious teen La’Trice (Maya Imani), closeted Kenny (Adrian Baidoo), and conservative Simone (Ashley Nicole Baptiste), for their grandfather’s funeral. I absolutely understand how the play hit the Broadway stage, with 1920s comedy-style zingers like one spouse saying, “I was tossing and turning all night,” and the other answering, “I know, I was there.” Or a mother saying, “You need to read a book,” and her daughter answering, “I am reading … Facebook.” Plus catchphrases like “Jumping Jacks for Jesus” and a sight gag surrounding funeral hydration.
Chicken & Biscuits is clearly written by an actor for actors, with multiple monologues, soliloquies, and defining character moments. Lyons’s own performance background shines through. Unfortunately, the introductory performances are this show’s weakest parts, generating stereotypical caricatures, with the actors hitting their lines super hard. This play and this performance are at their strongest when (under director Tyrone L. Robinson) the ensemble comes together, including the nitpicking husband-and-wife duo, the initial standoff between the two sisters, and the final chicken-and-biscuits dinner.
Hilarity and synchronicity
There is a certain type of shameless brilliance required to pull off an over-the-top character like Beverly, which Lee does flawlessly in the second half. However, initially she’s an empty jiggling character with a flagrant sexuality that would’ve come across better grounded with nerves. Likewise, the initial camp performances of Baidoo as Baneatta’s son Kenny and Alex Brightwell as his boyfriend Lucas took me back to 1990s media representations of homosexuality like The Birdcage (either deliberately or accidentally). But the minute Brightwell drops his character’s over-the-top cover, his hilarious object work, effortless physicality, and facial reactions shine through.
Shout-out to Imani’s irascible La’Trice, and Walter DeShields as Baneatta’s husband, Pastor Marby. From start to finish, both characters appear casually lived in, absolutely natural and effortless in their humor. As the youngest family member, Imani’s fidgeting gestures, humorous asides, and boisterous rapping are a delight. DeShields’s gentle preacher parody is hilarious without crossing boundaries. I did notice a clear hesitance in the cast when hugging, touching, or getting close to each other—perhaps a remnant of pandemic safety measures. However, the adorably energetic pairing between Imani and Brightwell is a lovely surprise, not only for their synchronicity, but their comfort with each other.
Church and stage
Ramaj Jamar’s costume design is brilliant, with a gorgeous going-to-church silk taffeta dress with feathered cowl neckline and the most spectacular boob dress topping my must-haves. The first half’s stagecraft was effortlessly smooth, easily transitioning set designer Chris Haig’s pieces from house foyer to hotel bedroom to outdoor station to Lyft vehicle to church foyer, all without a visible hint of stagehands. Also, the effect of Beverly looking through a frame into the audience, simulating a mirror, was awesome. The play’s highlight includes slow-motion funeral theatrics followed by a rapping scene transition. You gotta see it.
Family funeral, revisited
Although the play’s title hints at old-school Chitlin’ Circuit plays with standard characters like the Diva, the Matriarch, and the Preacher, the script’s deft wordplay steps outside those expectations. However, I am definitely over mining casual racism and sexism for humor, and I’m triply tired of the white tourist/fish-out-of-water stereotype.
While the play doesn’t introduce anything new to the family funeral genre, its second half proves more cohesive in weaving humor with drama. Ultimately, Chicken & Biscuits is a fun, family-friendly event, guaranteeing warm laughs.
What, When, Where
Chicken & Biscuits. By Douglas Lyons, directed by Tyrone L. Robinson. $15-$56. Through June 4, 2023, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. (215) 785-0100 or brtstage.org.
Bristol Riverside Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue (except for the second floor of the theater, which is accessibly only by stairs). Call the box office when purchasing for wheelchair accommodations.
Masks are optional.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.