In ‘Immediate Family,’ big social issues get the sitcom treatment
By Hedy Weiss firstname.lastname@example.org June 10, 2012 9:22PM
Phillip James Brannon (from left), Cynda Williams, Shanesia Davis and J. Nicole Brooks star in “Immediate Family.”
When: Through July 8
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Info: (312) 443-3800 or www.goodmantheatre.org
Updated: July 12, 2012 6:04AM
In “Immediate Family,” playwright Paul Oakley Stovall zestfully hangs out every last piece of “dirty laundry” belonging to the (mostly) black bourgeois clan who gather for a wedding at their grand home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
The stains on that laundry run the gamut from a long-ago indiscretion by the now dead patriarch (a minister), to the grudging acknowledgment of homosexuality, to the deep anger provoked by outside-the-race relationships, to frankness about broken marriages, to the deft way in which upwardly mobile blacks can easily switch back and forth between streetwise culture and more socially acceptable highbrow modes of expression. And Stovall has no compunction about revealing the many longstanding prejudices that can rip at the fabric of families (and society at large), and the often painful process involved in changing attitudes and gaining acceptance.
“Immediate Family” (being given a grand-scale commercial production staged “by special arrangement with the Goodman Theatre and in association with the About Face Theatre Company”) is a profoundly political play which, both for better and for worse, comes camouflaged in the more palatable format of a sitcom laced with several searing moments. In fact, aside from the issue of gay marriage, almost everything “new” here seems old again — something of a throwback to both “The Cosby Show” of the 1980s (with Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable in that landmark series, even serving as director here) and the earlier TV hit “All in the Family.”
Evy Bryant Jerome (the ever fearsome Shanesia Davis), bookish and emotionally taut, is now mistress of the Hyde Park home where she grew up, and where her macho, rather immature younger brother, Tony (the always spirited Kamal Angelo Bolden), is preparing to marry his still covertly pregnant girlfriend. Arriving from Minneapolis for the wedding is Evy’s other brother and intellectual soulmate, Jesse (the nicely understated Phillip James Brannon), who everyone knows is gay even if they refuse to talk about it.
The problem is, Jesse is bringing “a friend” to the wedding — Kristian Silborn (the gentle and attractive Patrick Sarb), a handsome, formerly married Swedish guy who Jesse can’t work up the courage to introduce as the man he plans to marry, and instead refers to as his roommate — a professional photographer who will shoot Tony’s wedding for free.
Evy is undone by this realization (more for Kristian’s whiteness than her brother’s homosexuality). She also is set on edge by the arrival from Belgium of her much-resented, half-white stepsister, Ronnie Hahn (deftly cast Cynda Williams), who also is hungry for recognition. Meanwhile, both Jesse and Kristian are at loggerheads over the seeming necessity to finesse the truth about themselves.
Some additional mischief comes in the form of Jesse’s close childhood pal, Nina Cole (an unreconizable J. Nicole Brooks in sensational comic form), the raucous, out-and-proud lesbian. And when she, Evy, Jesse and Ronnie gather ’round a table for a game of Spades, the fireworks fly in the play’s most terrifically written and performed scene.
Not everything is handled quite as seamlessly, including the observation that heterosexual blacks were heroes of the civil rights movement while gay ones, like Bayard Rustin, were often hidden. And the hair-pulling catfight between Evy and Ronnie is cheap and unnecessary.
In addition, while Rashad skillfully balances the play’s mood swings, she has failed to make sure the actors project clearly, and often the dialogue is inaudible. This must be fixed.
In a program note, Stovall writes: “Change is small. Change is personal. There are constant tiny shifts happening all around the country and the world.” In “Immediate Family” he brings all these changes to bear on a nuclear unit. But clearly they are explosive well beyond the confines of this one household.