by Michael Buzzelli
When Baneatta (Rita Gregory) hangs up on an enigmatic caller right before gathering her family for her father’s funeral, a mystery is afoot in Douglas Lyons’ “Chicken & Biscuits.”
Baneatta loves her husband, Reginald (Sheldon Ingram), and has deep-seated resentment for her sister, Beverly (Karla C. Payne). While she loves her son Kenny (Mils James), she seems to despise his partner, Logan (Cole Vecchio).
Baneatta pulls an Endora every time she mentions Kenny’s boyfriend, calling him every L-word except for Logan.
Other guests at the funeral include Baneatta’s daughter Simone (a very controlled, buttoned-down Shakira Stephens), and Beverly’s daughter La’Trice (Tajionna Clinton).
There is another guest played by Angelique A. Strothers, but revealing her identity takes us deep into Spoiler Country.
“Chicken & Biscuits” found the perfect recipe for its cast.
This is mostly Baneatta’s story and Gregory excels in the role of the conflicted matriarch holding secrets and grudges.
Ingram’s booming baritone voice gives him the gravitas of the patriarch of the Mabry clan.
Payne plays it big and broad, and it works for the big, broad Beverly.
Though Strothers doesn’t appear until the second act, she makes the most of her scenes on stage. The character and the actor give off an air of quiet dignity, even when surrounded by chaos.
Mils James is another bright light in a dazzling chandelier of castmates. Fitting somewhere on the middle of the scale between the reserved mother and outrageous aunt. One of his best lines was unscripted. When an audience member’s cell phone goes off, he pivoted to the patron and said, “Why you got your cell phone on at my daddy’s funeral?”
Clinton’s La’Trice is a joy. Much like many teenagers, she is equal parts of a wide-eyed innocent and a world-weary pragmatist, vacillating between bored and excited in seconds.
The costumes, designed by Reverend Deryck Tines, are an integral part of the play. Payne’s low-cut funeral-slash-clubbing dress for Beverly is a marvel to be seen. Hint: It accentuates “the twins.” Tines also fits Gregory’s Baneatta with a hat worthy of Kentucky Derby. He also makes James look dashing in a patterned suit (that looks like it came from Tines’ own closet).
Picture a mash up between “The Jerry Springer Show” and the slow-mo instant replay of a Monday Night Football game and you get an epic fight scene choreographed by Michael Petyak.
Director Eileen J. Morris takes great care in making sure each actor gets their moment. The pacing is swift and elegant. Transitions are quick and efficient with a few well-placed props that are easily moved around to create the illusion of different locations. Projections set the scene very effectively, much like an establishing shot in a film or TV show.
Lyons’ script is breezy and light but covers a lot of territory, including race-relations, gender-identity, homophobia and religion, but it’s never heavy-handed and almost always hilarious. It’s mostly low-brow humor, but it’s a notch above a Tyler Perry sitcom. Most importantly, the acting is on point!
If you’re looking for an evening of laughs, look no further than “Chicken & Biscuits.”
They’re serving up “Chicken and Biscuits” now until June 17th at the Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theater – 1300 Bingham Street , Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.