“Chicken & Biscuits” is a feast of a production, and there is enough sustenance and libation for the entire family. Zhailon Levingston, who at 27-years-old becomes the youngest Black director in Broadway history, brings to life Douglas Lyons’ new Broadway play, with a brilliant script that’s fresh, relatable and laugh-out-loud funny.
A funeral is not traditionally looked upon as a source of entertainment, but Lyons gives a bird’s-eye view of the celebratory nature of an elder’s homegoing in the Black church. The congregation — in this case the non-denominational audience at the Circle in the Square theater — participates in a full Baptist memorial service, complete with unpredictable family tributes, a never-ending sermon and an unexpected surprise guest who appears at the 11th hour. For all its comedic moments, (which are many), this story’s center is Black love, forgiveness and healing.
In a show that features seven Black characters and only a single white actor (Michael Urie), everything is refreshingly non-traditional for Broadway. We watch a pastor (Norm Lewis) supporting and consoling his mourning wife and first lady (Cleo King); we observe a single mother’s (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) close relationship with her teenage daughter (Aigner Mizzelle); and we see a brother (Devere Rogers), estranged from his family because of his sexuality, learning to forgive his bougie sister (Alana Raquel Bowers).
The cast is dynamic together, making it nearly impossible to single out any one of them. Mizzelle, however, does an extraordinary job at playing the going-on-16-year-old La’Trice Franklin, a character that could easily be portrayed as a Black female caricature. She’s loud, she’s bold and she says whatever is on her mind; Mizzelle’s performance gives nuance to the young Black woman screaming to be seen, included and understood. Urie, who plays Kenny Mabry’s white Jewish boyfriend, also does a phenomenal job of conveying how out of place his character feels. At no point does his performance feel forced.
The creative team — all people of color — understand the assignment. Lawrence E. Moten III’s scenic design makes it crystal clear, through mosaics of stained glass windows, portraits of Black Jesus and church pews that transform into everything (including a Lyft car), that you are in the “Lord’s house.” Dede Ayite’s costume design perfectly captures the “come as you are” spirit of the Black church, and the pastor’s wife and daughter wear bold church hats that remind the audience that the Baptist church is in fact the Black woman’s Kentucky Derby. Lights by Adam Honoré and sound by the first woman of color sound designer on Broadway, Twi McCallum, divinely accentuate the production.
No family is perfect; the Jenkins surely are not. They argue, curse and fight, and sometimes large family gatherings, like a funeral, bring out the worst. But “Chicken & Biscuits” is more than just a church service brought to you inside a Broadway house; it is a much-needed therapy session, a portrait of Black joy, love and laughter, that we all — and especially Black theatergoers — deserve following more than a year of COVID shutdowns, and after numerous Broadway productions showcasing Black pain and servitude. This play is both a Hallelujah and an A-men.