A long, deep breath can help one find a sliver of peace amid chaos. That's what members of the Jenkins family rely on when things get hectic. In "Chicken and Biscuits," produced by the Front Porch Arts Collective at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre (through Jan. 8), the Jenkins family has gathered for the patriarch’s funeral. But the smooth sendoff his eldest daughter Baneatta prays for is everything but.
The Modern has been transformed into a sanctuary: Wooden pews sit atop a rich red rug and church-like announcements get piped through the speakers at the show's start. Robert Cornelius’ rich vocal timbre is like that of a preacher addressing the congregation. The call-and-response tradition starts right away.
"God is good," Cornelius says. "All the time," theatergoers respond. A few more house rules get shared, and no church service is complete without the ceremonious turning to one's neighbor to ask or declare something. In this case, Cornelius asks folks to "turn to your neighbor and say, "Neighbor, turn off your cellphone." The audience complies and gets ushered into the action with a spirited organ playing "Amazing Grace" through the sound system.
The Douglas Lyons narrative—which premiered on Broadway in 2021— is the Front Porch's first solo effort. Starring an excellent cast, the hilarious tale of love and secrets rooted in religion is punctuated with tender family moments. Baneatta, portrayed by actor, director and playwright Jacqui Parker, is refined, well-educated and churchy to the core, the complete opposite of younger sister (who loves Jesus too), Beverly (Thomika Marie Bridwell), an attention-demanding hairdresser who lives in Atlanta.
Bridwell's Beverly is a tight-dress-wearing, rhinestone-dripping loudmouth whose energy fills every room she enters. Bridwell's expansive range shines here: Beverly's self-absorbed, explosive personality is a far cry from Bridwell's starring role as June, a highly paid accountant, in SpeakEasy Stage's production of "BLKS" last year.
Here, a long-held secret that comes out during the homegoing service erupts, under Lyndsay Allyn Cox’s fabulously choreographed direction, in a fight that leaves the family reeling.
In addition to processing their loss and the secret, the audience learns more about the individual challenges of the family. Baneatta and Reginald's son Kenny has a boyfriend, Logan, that Baneatta is struggling to accept. Their daughter Simone is reeling from a betrayal by her fiancé and Beverly's daughter La'Trice is pining for a relationship with her estranged father. The seemingly stoic Simone wisely tells her little cousin La'Trice that “miscommunication ruins a lot of love,” and urges her to build a relationship with her dad.
The excellent ensemble embodies their characters fully, making these admissions memorable.
This story could easily lean too comedic, but Cox makes sure to slow the pacing down to give the characters space for their more vulnerable moments. The audience audibly recognizes them with "Amens" and affirming "Uh huhs."
Some of the best parts of the play are the familiar sounds and happenings of the Black church onstage before a rare, predominantly melanated audience. There's an always-singing-off tune Mother Jones belting tunes from somewhere in the rafters, the organ punctuating the sermon, and the threads of faith and family weaved throughout. Black joy though, Lyons shares in an interview, is at core.
The essence of a tight-knit family is something that the Front Porch aims to echo in its work.
Co-founder Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who welcomed Boston Public School mentor-teachers before the show in the hallway, says they're building a movement at the play's end. They're building The Porch, "step by step and brick and brick."
And all are welcome.
"Chicken and Biscuits" runs through Jan. 8 at Suffolk University's Modern Theatre.