Guess who’s coming to the family wedding in “Immediate Family,” a topical comedy about a set of African-American siblings and what happens when the semi-secretly gay favorite brother brings home his white potential husband. Paul Oakley Stovall’s play has existed in various forms for a few years. But timing is all, and right now this impressively mounted commercial production, deftly directed by Phylicia Rashad, has a combo of mainstream sensibility and media-friendly subject that makes producers’ Broadway aspirations seem within reach.
Show played Los Angeles’ Celebration Theater in 2008 under the title “As Much as You Can.” But the Chicago production arrives just as Barack Obama has completed his evolution on the issue of gay marriage. Obama is barely mentioned during the 90-minute running time, but he is indirectly present nonetheless.
The play takes place in Hyde Park, the Obamas’ affluent home neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The home belongs to schoolteacher Evy (Shanesia Davis), who is committed to educating her students on African-American heroes; Obama is on the list, while gay poet Langston Hughes is not.
Stovall smartly wastes little time in getting his story moving. Jesse (Phillip James Brannon) comes home for the wedding of his youngest brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). He has offered the services of his Swedish “friend” Kristian (Patrick Sarb) as photographer. With the urging of his half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams), the living embodiment of their father’s own secret flaws, and lesbian neighbor and wise-cracking sidekick Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), Jesse goes about informing Tony and then Evy about his real relationship with Kristian.
While Brooks, as Nina, gets most of the pure laugh lines and delivers them deliciously, Bolden’s easygoing Tony actually owns a couple of the funniest moments.
As Evy, meanwhile, Davis owns the play’s dramatic moments. Stovall carefully avoids delving deeply into either politics or religion; Evy’s faith doesn’t need much mentioning as she resists Jesse’s pleas for her to accept who he is, and by extension accept Kristian as “immediate family.” After the predictable (and entertaining) family explosion, where all sorts of history and resentments flow over, Davis skillfully lets the audience into her internal battle. To Stovall’s credit, he gives Evy the most important and involving emotional journey here.
Some of the other details — about Kristian’s son back in Sweden, for example — feel like unfinished edges. And it should be noted that Stovall suggests that any reconciliation, or at least one that could be captured with a comic sensibility, is really only possible now that the family’s more violently homophobic father has passed on. Stovall has kept this light largely by making it an intra-generational conflict.
As Jesse, the excellent Brannon gets the somewhat thankless role of the straight man (pun intended), but he moves between the comic and dramatic scenes without ever sacrificing a sense of core reality.
That’s Rashad’s triumph here as well. This is a play with plenty of contrivances that Rashad manages to smooth into a singular, fully believable whole, and with an often sitcom-ish tone that Rashad embraces as being capable of containing substance along with its humor.