There's nothing more telling about a culture than the way it honors its dead.
For Jamaican "bling funerals," caskets are adorned with jewels, sequins, and fine fabrics and paraded through the streets to celebrate the life of the departed.
On the sea islands of Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida, Gullah-Geechee peoples bathe and dress the body of the deceased as a final cleansing before meeting God.
In some Native American cultures, coffins are filled with fruits, vegetables, and other supplies to usher the body back to the Spirit World.
Arrivals and departures, celebration and grief, are the human experiences for which there is no alternative.
That said, I hate funerals and avoid them as much as possible. I accept that death (and reincarnation if you’re with me) are a part of the cycle of being, but funerals rarely honor the magnitude of a life the way we hope they will. I’ve never seen a person’s smile captured by mortuary makeup. In my experience, more than closure, funerals dredge up unresolved conflicts among relatives. And, those of us who only recently graduated from the millennial kids table watch on while the shade is thrown.
Douglas Lyons’ new play Chicken & Biscuits, running through Jan. 2 at Circle in the Square Theatre, captures the hilarity and hijinks of family and funerals. In the play, rivaling sisters Baneatta and Beverly come together to bury their beloved father. Both are convinced that they are daddy’s favorite, but they have some competition with Baneatta’s high-strung daughter (Simone), actor son (Kenny), and Bev’s rapping teenage daughter (La’Trice) all vying for the top spot. Throw Kenny’s white boyfriend in the mix and the dough gets thick.
In many Black families, a funeral is a day-long event. After the funeral procession, worship service, meet-and-greet, burial and repass, there is no energy to do anything except sleep. I have always been struck by white friends and colleagues who go to a funeral and then work the same day. That is not a thing here and Lyons knows it, which is why he throws in fun moments such as a starving Kenny snacking on communion wafers.
This is Lyons’ Broadway premiere as a playwright, though he’s performed in the national tour of Rent as well as on Broadway in The Book of Mormon and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. What’s different about Chicken & Biscuits is that he captures what feels like an authentically Black experience, right down to an overdressed Beverly in a metallic black and gold polka-dotted dress. There’s always that one relative who is doing the most.
When I went to see Chicken & Biscuits, in addition to laughing out loud several times, I was struck by the sense of celebration of a life well-lived amid the dysfunction. Lyons gives his characters the kind of closure that we rarely get in real life. It got me musing about what I might want for my own last hoorah and I was definitely inspired by the queen, Aretha Franklin.
At the ripe old age of 95 when the Lord calls me home, I would like my funeral to be a day of celebration. My final bed should be a lilac casket lined in white satin with platinum hardware. I’d like to be clothed in a bejeweled, silver sari with a net veil delicately draped over my face. Don’t worry, I’ll have good life insurance. My body will be transported to the church in a lavender Cadillac hearse, kin to the Queen of Soul’s pink fleet.
Service should begin at noon, because I am not a morning person, even in death. Guests will be asked to wear something purple—my favorite color. Picture a chapel filled with lilies and orchids. The sermon will be short, preached by a non-denominational pastor reciting my favorite Bible verses. The last one should be from Isaiah 55:10-12, a verse I believe epitomizes the work of life. It reads:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
I mean, come on. Poetry, am I right?
Then, guests will have the opportunity to tell only funny stories about me.
Before we go, I do not want the typical funeral songs such as “Goin’ Up Yonder,” “I’ll Fly Away” or even “Amazing Grace” which is hilariously sung by an unseen vocalist in the play. I just want one powerhouse to belt “In the Midst of It All” by Yolanda Adams before a harpist plays the recessional.
Once the service is done, the lavender hearses and limousines will go to a lush hillside garden where my body will be laid to rest in the heat of the day. Then comes, the most important part: the repass.
For many Black Americans, the meal following the burial, or repass, is just as important as the funeral service. It is a time to laugh, reminisce, and reunite with relatives who we may not see until the next person is called home. The meal is usually anchored by never-quite-the-right-temperature fried chicken and fluffy biscuits. (I like mine with apple butter or peach preserves.)
Lyons honors this tradition in his play, by tapping into the healing power of food. The Jenkins family is hoping to tighten the ties that bind by sharing their patriarch’s favorite meal, chicken and biscuits. It’s much-needed nourishment after wading through sibling rivalries, divorces, and secrets.
This simple meal is the shared experience of every funeral I’ve ever attended. As a southerner, chicken and biscuits are on every corner, but grief makes salt tastes different. I don't recall a lot from when my great-aunt died in 2006, but I do recall that every surface in my cousin’s kitchen was covered with chicken and biscuits. When my uncle died in 2014, my aunt’s sisters put chicken, biscuits, green beans, and potato salad in chafing dishes after the service. After I lost a childhood friend in 2017, I ate chicken and biscuits.
The smell of Lawry’s seasoned salt, black pepper and onion powder, the sight of grease giving white napkins a yellowish tint, is an odd comfort. It’s more than a meal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us to confront death at a high volume with little closure. From memorial services on Zoom to rushed cremations, the final goodbyes that traditional funeral services provide has been fleeting. Lyons’ play attempts to fill that gap with laughter.
In this way, it is also a celebration of the Black church—complete with a giant painting of a Black Jesus on the walls. In a world where we must create God in our own image as much as we are created in His, this detail harkens back to the photos of Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and Jesus hanging in so many southern, Black grandmothers’ living rooms.
Throughout the play, Lyons carefully challenges outdated doctrines about gender roles and sexuality. But, he also celebrates the community and freedom of expression that the church offers Black people. Indeed, the smell of chicken and biscuits still fills many church fellowship halls after Sunday service.
I recently spoke to Lyons about the healing power of soul food and why Chicken & Biscuits is the balm theater needs right now.
The play itself is a meal and it's a tradition of one of the family members that everyone is coming to honor. It stirred up some drama in that there's a stereotype that we as Black people should be ashamed of eating such food. I'm puncturing that stereotype and saying this is ours.
I put it in the play. At my grandmother's funeral, my aunt went down to the casket twice and she was fine. She made all the way to the back door and then she fell out screaming and crying. That was imprinted in my mind. It's heartfelt and comedic. We're not supposed to laugh, but it's kind of funny. I compare the Broadway stage to a chapel. The congregation that comes into the chapel to get a word is just like the congregation that comes into the theater to get a story.
My entry point into writing is comedy. I'm a silly person and if I'm going to write things that may never be produced, I want to have fun while I'm doing it. I want to bring out the more positive images in Blackness, especially in the American theater. I’m coming in with a comedy that allows Black people to be regal, which is reflective of the way we walk through the world when we're in control of our own images. I also get to glorify people I grew up with.
After what we've been through [during the COVID-19 pandemic], people want to laugh. I'm also proud that when you look at Chicken and Biscuits, you will see five different Black women with different hairstyles and senses of style, some of which you haven't seen onstage. For example, La’Trice is a teenager with colorful hair and she's a rapper. Seeing her bow onstage is going to let other little La’Trices know that they have a place in that space.
One of my favorite meals is hot dogs & beans with biscuits. I don't really eat hot dogs anymore, but when I go home I say to my mom ‘you know what I want.’ I cook it for myself sometimes, but I make it with chicken sausage and honey beans. It's the perfect meal, the sweet and savory of the beans and biscuits. Just talking about it, now I'm going to have to eat this.
Soul food is culture, heritage and tradition. It's the stories passed down through the food. When I think of soul food, I think of the conversations being had when that dish was being made, the lineage and heritage that is passed down and how that meal was given. What was the occasion? What does soul food mean to that specific family? There was a woman in my church in New Haven, Connecticut and she made this wonderful banana pudding. She died from cancer when I was in college, but if I had it right now it would remind me of Annette. It's not just the dish, it's the love that's in it. And, the healing that can happen during those meals when we gather at a funeral. It's a placemat for us to work all of that stuff out.