Chicken & Biscuits Left Me Hungry For More

By Paul Castaneda

ORLANDO — I had the privilege of catching the last performance of Chicken & Biscuits at UCF on Oct. 1 and it is now the first article in what is my new approach to covering the arts (see more here). I’m glad I caught it.

Now, you may be asking yourself “Why write a review or article on a show that is closed by the time said article is posted?” Glad you asked … because works of art deserve our notice even once they have passed, sometimes especially so and, most especially, when they are from new authors, new voices and oft underrepresented groups.

What is the Play Chicken & Biscuits?

Playwright Douglas Lyons has crafted a deeply personal work whose characters are inspired by people he knows intimately, people he knows from his own place of worship. In his own words, Lyons hopes that his work will be part of “giving a breath of fresh air and new energy to a generation that can come out and see themselves as happy as they are in their actual life, not just as the theater has portrayed them to be”. I can assert that he has most decidedly succeeded.

That said, the play and playwright has faced some rather harsh criticism from reviewers during its Broadway run and some less than enthusiastic ones elsewhere. Without going into detail here (not the right place or time), I vehemently disagree. I found the play to be engaging and thoughtfully written and the characters to not only be engaging, but also to be full and three dimensional.

Going beyond differences in taste, I think much of the negativity stems for not being from the background and culture that generated the piece AND not taking the time to delve into what one does not know. To casually dismiss a work that touches on family dynamics, identity and acceptance, humor as a method of dealing with difficult topics, the intersection of race and identity, generational differences and more informs us more as to the short sightedness of the author of the review or article than the prowess or talent of the author of the play.

The show I saw at UCF made me laugh, cry, cringe (in the best of ways), nod in understanding AND made me want to learn even more about the black culture depicted on that stage than I already do.It made me lean in to what Lyons had shared and left me changed from when I walked in, which is what theater does at its best. To experience this in a university setting left me with hope and confidence in the future of the art.

How Was the UCF Production of Chicken & Biscuits?

This. of course. is also due to the talent of the wonderful cast and the skilled director. Director Felichia Chivaughn does a great job of staging the action, which ranges from intimate 2 person scenes to a raucous brawl played out in part in slow motion. She uses the black box space at UCF expertly and is aided by a capable set and lighting design. 

But Chivaughn’s real magic skills shine through in the terrific work of a wonderful ensemble cast. Ranging from capable to extraordinary, these performers pass the the energetic throughline of the play to each other from scene to scene, alternating between quiet and intense slow burning fire to fully expressed, explosive fireballs of ferocity, all while never losing us as an audience and while also injecting humor to disarm the pain.

Kenny Mabry (Phoenix) figuratively tap dances through the minefield of bringing his white, Jewish boyfriend Logan (Jake Perez) to the funeral of his late grandfather, a pastor who turned out to be the most accepting family member in regards to his sexuality and his relationship. There is a gripping earnestness to his performance, as he deals with the repercussions not only of his mother and family’s reactions to who he is and who he has brought with him, but also to his own mistakes in standing up for the man he loves.

Logan is used primarily for comic relief in the piece, and Perez handles this with aplomb. But, he particularly shines in his moments with teenager Latrice (Micah Brown), who becomes the first living family member to accept him and stand up for him (even if she does have a figurative payback check to cash for it).

Speaking of Latrice, Micah Brown just about steals the show, modulating between youthful energy and self centeredness to quiet pain over the dad she does not know. She elevates every scene she is in and I was stunned to learn that this is her Theater UCF debut. The faculty/directors should find any and every opportunity to elevate this talent.

The character of Beverly Jenkins (Dominique Marshall) proves to be not just an adequate foil for her sister, family matriarch Barnetta Mabry (Olamide Oladeji), but provides needed comic relief throughout the play, taking no pains in calling out family b.s. and keeping things real. Confidently portrayed by Marshall, Beverly also makes us truly buy in to the reconciliation at the play’s conclusion.

Oladeji’s portrayal of Barnetta is a lesson in playing that which the audience does not know to great effectiveness. Her performance constantly hints at what may be coming without hitting us over the head with it. By the time the character of Brianna Jenkins (Gabriella Phillips) arrives on the scene, acting as an an apparent bomb who is really a deus ex machina for the show, Oladeji has prepared us without spoiling what is to come.

As for Phillips’ portrayal of Brianna, there is a quiet stillness and intensity in her performance that draws you in further and further until you feel you are almost on stage with her, experiencing her pain side by side. A captivating turn is experienced here.

Rounding out the cast are Jonathan Sommervil as Reginald Mabry, Barnetta’s husband and the new pastor of the church, and Clara Elliott as Simone Mabry, daughter to Barnetta and sister to Kenny. Somerville particularly dazzles in a call and response with the audience during the service and couples that with an entirely believable love and support for wife Barnetta. Elliott is potent in her dramatic turns with Latrice and Kenny. Here we seem to see the real depth of Simone, and her struggles with issues of identity and worthiness.

Were this run continuing beyond the show I caught I would recommend it highly for all to see. The play serves as a revealing look into a community and culture we don’t often see realistically portrayed on the stage. For any that would question the reality of the characters or situations, I invite you to speak to members of said community to educate yourselves. It rang very true to me before I ever spoke with the director in charge and even more thereafter.

As for Chivaughn, she shared how important it was to her to elevate new and important voices like that of Lyons, and to work with the next generation of young artists, particularly from a marginalized group portrayed here. In her process she particularly wanted to show artists that might be looked over or tokenized in other places that there is a place and process that honors their talent, their cultural backgrounds and the careers they are trying to build. We discussed the necessity for black artists to be incorporated more fully into non-black shows in roles that fully use their skills and are too often denied to them by preconceived notions and what have been the norms of the theatrical world, especially in the world of education.

I look forward to hearing/seeing more from the talented and driven Chivaughn and hope to have her as a guest on future podcasts/video casts on the arts, if she will honor me with her presence.

Congratulations to all for a job exceedingly well done.

See you at the show,

Paul Castañeda

Paul Castaneda is an Orlando actor, stage director, playwright and sales professional, and the co-founder of the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre (GOAT).

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