A New American Play
By Paul Oakley Stovall
Directed by Phylicia Rashad
Produced by Paul Boskind, Ruth Hendel, Stephen Hendel
by special a arrangement with Goodman Theatre
in association with About Face Theatre Compaany
At the Goldman’s Owen Theatre, Chicago
New sit-com styled play too manipulative to be credible
Playwright Paul Oakley Stovall’s Immediate Family is a contrived HBO sit-com styled work that features over-the-top performances and improbable situations designed further the writer’s conceit.
Jessie Bryant, Jr. (Phillip James Brannon) returns to the family’s Chicago Hyde Park home after a two year exile for the wedding of his brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). Jessie is worried that the family will discover that he is gay and that his Swedish “friend” Kristan (Patrick Sarb) is actually his live-in lover. Tony hides the fact that his fiance is four months pregnant. Add the arrival of the Bryant’s half sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams) with older sister and mother figure, Evy (Shanesia Davis)- a self-styled African-American advocate and racist homophobic activist and you have the ingredients for an explosive comic drama.
Evy can’t understand why her two brothers are so mysterious and distant but since she comes across as a narrow-minded, mean-spirited bigot, who could blame them? Evy is a Bible-thumping, homophobic who believes that all Black men should marry and have children. No wonder that Jessie is fearful of announcing that he is gay and that he is living with a white man. I wonder why Jessie would, after two years of not speaking to the family, come to his brother’s wedding especially knowing that Evy and probably the entire family would reject his lifestyle? What compels him to attend the wedding? Playwright contrivance? And, why would he ‘volunteer ‘ his lover to be the wedding’s photographer? If he feared rejection, he had two choices: either come out and explain his relationship with Kristan to the family or not bother with the wedding. His choice to try to hide things from the family and explain away Kristan is doomed. I can’t empathize with Jessie’s cowardliness.
Add the hyper aggressive lesbian neighbor, Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) and the action gets wild and eventually erupts into a she fight between Evy and her half sister Ronnie. This contrived play features a racist, bigoted sister who despite a superb education is vehemently anti-white and anti-gay. She can’t accept her gay brother and her half white sister. Jessie’s brother Tony accepts Jessie’s being gay but he has trouble with Kristian being white.
Tensions boil over when too much alcohol and too much card-playing rivalries led to a ghetto-life physical encounter. Was playwright Stovaall trying to demean African-Americans by showing them to react with violence when emotions erupt? If I was African-American, I’d be offended by the negative depiction of the Bryant’s. I was also irritated by all the screaming and fast-talking dialect (especially from J. Nicole Brooks’ Nina). The verbal exchanges that found one speaker talking over the other proved annoying.
The opening night audience laughed heartily throughout but I found the changing tone shifts from Black humor to serious racial and homophobic bigotry disconcerting. If Stovall was trying to show that Black families can be as dysfunctional and bigoted as whites, he sure succeeded. The press notes have the playwright stating that the play is about change – tiny shifts in attitude. I found Evy’s sudden change – her acceptance of Jessie’s lifestyle and her toleration of Ronnie at the play’s end to be unwarranted and implausible.
I did admire the fine acting by Phillip James Brennon as Jessie with fine work also by Patrick Sarb as Kristian. Shenesia Davis was riveting as Evy. I must admit that audiences will probably enjoy Immediate Family more that I did.
For more info checkout the Immediate Family page on theatreinchicago.com
Date Reviewed: June 8, 2012
At the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, www.goodmantheatre.org, tickets $20 – $54, Tuesdaays thru Thursdays at 7;30 pm, Fridays 7 Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees at 2 pm on select Thursdays & Saturdays & Sundays, running time is 90 minutes without intermission, through August 5, 2012