GUESS WHO’S COMING TO THE WEDDING DINNER?
Immediate Family, written by Chicago actor and playwright Paul Oakley Stovall, is part sitcom and part dysfunctional family drama, garnished with racial and gay humor that flows into racial and gay tensions. As directed by Phylicia Rashad, it’s a pretty good play right now, but needs some tweaking if Broadway is in its site.
Evy, a teacher with strong religious beliefs and fierce racial pride, holds down the Bryant family fort in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The black family, fragmented since the death of their parents, is coming together for the wedding of Evy’s younger brother Tony (to a woman we never see). Their sibling Jesse is a writer who now lives in San Francisco. For Evy, at least, Jesse has been the hope of the family and she is shocked by the revelation that he is gay, which is an affront to her religious convictions.
Their half-sister is Ronnie, the product of an affair by their father and a white woman; Ronnie is an outsider who mostly roils the emotional waters with her outspoken behavior. Then there is Nina, a feisty and bumptious lesbian friend full of sass and in-your-face humor, provides many of the play’s laughs but doesn’t get involved in the main storyline, which belongs largely to Evy and Jesse.
Tony tends to take his brother’s homosexuality in stride until he meets Jesse’s partner Kristian, who is white and Swedish. By the time Kristian makes his appearance fairly late in the 90-minute intermissionless show, feelings are running high, leading to the spiral of recriminations (culminating in a very physical cat fight between Evy and Ronnie), revelations about past hurts, and ultimately some acceptance if not complete reconciliation. It’s the schematic that shapes all the dysfunctional family dramas that flooded American stages in recent decades.
Stovall can write funny dialogue for his characters, dialogue tailored to black characters, though the thick inner city inflections cause me to miss some of the comedy (it also took some time to sort out exactly how the black characters relate). An incomprehensibly complicated card game is a particular hoot. Stovall can also write scenes of high emotional intensity, especially those involving Jesse with Evy and Kristian. The playwright obviously intended characters to reconsider and revise their prejudices as the action goes on, leading to a mellow and silent moment that unpersuasively concludes the play. With the exception of Evy, whose attitudes on race and homosexuality may turn more tolerant, the characters at the end of the play remain largely unchanged. The family will be at least as fragmented after the final curtain as they were in the opening scenes.
The six member cast does well by Stovall’s script, though the narrative suffers from the lack of chemistry between Phillip James Brannon’s Jesse and Patrick Sarb’s Kristian. But their Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner situation has its humorous moments. Shanesia Davis is outstanding as the fiery and judgmental Evy. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s Tony and J. Nicole Brooks’s Nina distribute most of the ethnic humor. Cynda Williams does what she can with the role of the half-sister, but she remains a peripheral character.
The big name in the production is director Rashad, who played Claire Huxtable in the enormously popular The Cosby Show. Rashad doesn’t leave a large directorial footprint on the staging, allowing the action to play out realistically. The real backstage hero is John Iacovelli, who designed a detailed house interior that looks good enough to move into after the play closes. Ana Kuzmanic designed the costumes, Heather Gilbert the lighting, and Joshua Horvath the sound.
Immediate Family has whiffs of A Raisin in the Sun (which Rashad directed to great acclaim in Los Angeles) and August: Osage County, both admirable role models. As new plays go, there is much to admire in the writing and presentation. Its producers have leased the Goodman Owen Theatre for a summer run with hopes of transferring to New York City. Only time will tell whether this enjoyable but slightly flawed play has the potential to make it to Broadway.
photos by Michael Brosilow
Produced in association with About Face at Goodman’s Owen Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on July 8
for tickets, call 312 443 3800 or visit http://www.goodmantheatre.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com
Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of Immediate Family at Goodman Owen Theatre