I start off the day I am going to see Chicken and Biscuits the way I do most others—by checking up on Tabitha Brown. The vegan social media icon turned motivational speaker holds a permanent position in my morning routine, alongside prayer, journaling, and a scalding cup of tea.
Today is a special day. Ms. Brown is on tour, promoting her #1 New York Times Best-selling book at Chicago’s Park West. Wrapped around the corner of the venue waiting to pile in is a line of brimming, Black Chicagoans; their faces plastered with enthusiasm. The camera then pans inside the concert hall, where the boisterousness continues. It is not long before a gospel song breaks out. Everyone, including me from a bedroom 800 miles away, bellows: “I get joy when I think about what he’s done for me!” It is hard for energy like this to ooze out of me once it has made its way in. So by 7pm, when I take my seat in the Circle in the Square Theatre, that “joy, joy” still rings in my ear.
Douglas Lyons’ new Broadway play Chicken and Biscuits centers on the Jenkins clan—a messy family reunited at the funeral of their beloved patriarch. Baneatta and Beverly are sisters and the biological children of the deceased, but constantly bicker about the polarizing differences in the most essential of family values: education, career, and ability to keep a man. Baneatta, the frontrunner on all accounts, is married to the stoic pastor Reginald with whom she has two children, daughter Simone and son Kenny. The former arrives at the funeral without her husband. The latter arrives with a Jewish man named Logan. I am familiar enough with the stereotypes that exist about devout Christian, Black families in Connecticut by way of the Carolinas, to know that neither situation is ideal.
It is hard for human beings to reckon with death. Funerals often purge, rather than pacify, the loved ones left behind. Funerals can rile up secrets, lies, shame, desires—the ripest ingredients for a family drama. Yet, the overly predictable dramatic moments are precisely where Chicken and Biscuits loses its meat. Lyons’ script allows each character to dip his or her toe into heavier topics—Beverly’s teenage daughter (La’Trice) laments about not having a relationship with her father, Simone loses herself in the pursuit of being “enough” for her husband, Kenny hesitates to validate his same-sex partnership in the face of his mother’s homophobia—but the waters here are shallow. Someone’s trauma bursts onto the scene and evaporates just as quickly. Emotionally, I am more impacted by the intimate, unspoken moments these characters carve out for themselves like when Logan gently removes Kenny’s durag before the big event or La’Trice scours her precious Doc Martens with a toothbrush as I have seen my own teenage sister do.
Regardless of any lulls in character development, Chicken and Biscuits fulfills its promise. It is two hours of soulful, side-splitting fun. Gospel music greets me at my seat. I become part of the Jenkins family church’s choir and then a member of its congregation. A few simple, yet realistic set pieces do the trick: stained glass windows erected on the walls, homages to Black Jesus unveiled from behind curtains, and in true pew fashion, benches that serve as both seats and storage. A pre-show announcement asks us to silence cell phones and keep plastic-wrapped hard candies at the bottom of our purses, but invites us to shout “hallelujah” and “amen.” The voice tells us that rejoicing is welcomed here. And rightly so, because there is a lot to celebrate.
I open up the Playbill and read a wall of Broadway debuts: actors Cleo King, Alana Raquel Bowers, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Aigner Mizzelle and Devere Rogers, designers Lawrence E. Moten III, Nikiya Mathis and Twi Mccallum (the first woman of color sound designer on Broadway), aforementioned playwright Douglas Lyons, director Zhailon Levingston (the youngest Black director on Broadway), and many more. There is a righteousness to the Blackness running up and down this bill, but I savor it for only a few moments before swiveling my head to the left and realizing the friend I came with is the only other Black person I can see in our row.
Chicken and Biscuits is one of seven new plays written by Black playwrights debuting on Broadway this season. Every night when the house lights dim, the limitations of this fact come into view. I try, but it is impossible for me not to think how much better-served this play would be with more of us in the audience. What spirit could be conjured up if the Tabitha Brown-devoted army I woke up to decided to take a trip to NYC. Laughter would not just fill the room, it would shake the walls. Dancing would spill into the aisles. We would not need a PA to grant us permission to holler.
The show serenades us out with Anthony Brown and Group therAPy’s “Blessings on Blessings.” Brown shouts:
“This is not a drill. It's time for you to speak what you wanna see
And if you with it, then repeat after me, c'mon!”
More Black people will show up for Chicken and Biscuits. More Black families wrestling with their own grief will be healed by Chicken and Biscuits. More wonderful opportunities will open up for the artists involved with Chicken and Biscuits.
Repeat after me, c’mon!
Intro photo by Emilio Madrid