Review: Farmers Alley Theatre's 'Chicken & Biscuits' is Well-Crafted Comfort Food

“Lord, bless me with the patience to deal with my family, for they know not what they do. . . .” says Jenkins family matriarch Baneatta at the start of Douglas Lyons’ comedic play Chicken and Biscuits, currently in production at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo.

Anyone born into a family likely can relate to Baneatta’s prayer, intimately aware of the drama inevitable to family gatherings. Add the heightened emotions that come with a patriarch’s death, and the tensions if not conflicts multiply.

This is the central situation in Chicken and Biscuits, and the specific story revolves around Baneatta and her family for whom to say there are no small personalities is a tremendous understatement.

This is both the blessing and the curse of this play. The characters are enormous—archetypes if not stereotypes; and the tensions and conflicts between them many. We get to know them largely through short two-person scenes that build to an explosive funeral scene in which all the characters finally interact. In many ways it feels like a sitcom full of quick, almost predictable one liners, though the structure, to its detriment, is not quite as neatly formulaic. There’s a plot twist just barely foregrounded in the opening scenes, but its reveal comes two-thirds of the way through the show and is left to be resolved along with all the other tensions in relatively little time and space.

However, in the hands of Director Quincy Thomas and the extraordinary cast at Farmers Alley, this middling script is elevated well beyond the sum of its parts to an enjoyable, heartfelt 100 minutes with no intermission.

Demetria Thomas is a formidable Baneatta, though she plays her with complexity that moves her beyond the over-achieving, highly-critical eldest sibling to a woman who’s making hard choices to keep her family together. She’s powerful and wonderfully flawed, and the gentle power battles she has with her adoring and aspiring pastor husband Reginald, played beautifully by Von Washington, ring true. His role is to eulogize Grandpa Bernard, often referred to as “B”, and ultimately earn his spot leading the congregation that B has left behind. His performance is riveting, building to a song-like crescendo that rouses everyone.

Baneatta and Reginald’s adult children arrive with their own baggage, exacerbated by Baneatta’s responses to them. She all but ignores the fact that her beloved son (Avery Kenyatta) has brought his anxious Jewish boyfriend (Sam Hoffman) to the funeral, for example. 

Though Kenyatta and Hoffman have great chemistry, create real connection with each other and others on stage, and overall give terrific performances, it’s the stereotypical dynamic created by the white outsider in the Black space who doesn’t know how to react or behave in the funeral-cum-celebration. Is the joke on the clueless, ostracized white guy? Or is it on the Black culture and ritual to which he is audience, much like the largely white audience at Farmers Alley Theatre? There’s no easy answer here, but the depth with which each character is portrayed is an adequate distraction.

Baneatta’s sister Beverly, played with scene-stealing vivacity by Darlene Dues, is upstaged by her breasts, deliberately so, much to Baneatta’s chagrin. But Dues plays her to the hilt, and the effect is to make this fierce auntie and her sometimes cringe-worthy lines real. Aija Hodges is also wonderful as Beverly’s irreverent, precocious teenage daughter La’Trice.

Baneatta’s adult daughter Simone is perhaps the most complex of all—a real heartbreaker in the hands of Marissa Harrington who plays her as a variation of Baneatta, steely and in command, but also grief stricken for having been dumped by her fiancé for a white woman. She offers some of the most vulnerable and touching moments in the show that creates terrific grounding against which the other light external tensions and iterations of Black joy are juxtaposed.

All of which comes to life with dependably strong technical elements. From Sam Snow’s church backdrop set with seemingly effortless transitions between scenes to Nicole Peckens’ snazzy costumes, everything we see and hear on stage helps support the dramatic action and stellar characterizations.

And in the end, despite the internal and external struggles and tensions, the family ultimately rallies through catharsis and is made new through the reckoning hastened by the presence of a mysterious woman (played with extraordinary naturalness by Julianne Howe-Bouwens). Love wins in the end. And chicken and biscuits, which B loved to make despite making them badly, finally taste good.

It’s a simple but effective metaphor that can be applied to the production itself. When you’ve got heart coupled with real skill and talent, you can turn basic ingredients into something downright sumptuous that everyone’s happy to eat.

Chicken and Biscuits
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
April 21-May 7