The Owen Bruner Theater at Chicago’s Goodman Theater is not as opulent or flashy as many of the city’s houses. Walking in the only ornamentation appears to be a series of plaster busts of famous playwrights. Inside the theater, removable seats and plain wooden beams showcase function over form. The plainness of the theater serves to accentuate the perfect facsimile of a modern family living room located on stage, replete with details from a shelf full of books and CDs in the living room to a working kitchen sink. The stage is set for a relatively modern take on the “guess who’s coming to dinner” story.
Debuting this past Saturday, Immediate Family is a new American play by Paul Oakley Stovall, directed by Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad and featuring a marvelous cast with deep Chicago ties. Set in the south side of Chicago, Immediate Family is a story of a group of siblings reuniting at the family home for the wedding of their youngest brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). The eldest brother Jesse (Phillip James Brannon) comes home after being away over two years and ambushes his family with Kristian (Patrick Sarb), his Swedish partner. While his best friend Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) and his half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams) fully approve of his lifestyle, Jesse is nervous about telling Tony and his sister Evy (Shanesia Davis), as they struggle with not only Jesse’s sexual orientation but also in choosing a partner who is white.
Immediate Family doesn’t tread into any wildly unfamiliar territory with regards to story or character. The morally indignant Evy is as much a matriarch as the family gets, acting as a mother figure to the bulked up man-child Tony. Jesse plays an unsurprisingly bright and neat gay man. The sassy Nina is a crass and mouthy lesbian with some of the play’s most hysterical lines. Ronnie plays the uppity sister who reeks as much of pretention as of alcohol (she is drinking in every scene). The only character relatively underrepresented on stage and screen is the conservative and family-oriented gay character Kristian represents.
While the characters were a bit derivative, Stovall does a wonderful job of scribing a play that dares to be black while being neither pretentiously Afrocentric nor offensively minstrel-like. References to James Baldwin and the Bible are uttered interchangeably with jokes about chicken and playing cards. I also found that Jesse and Kristian presented a homosexual relationship that was highly relatable, providing for a satisfactory realistic resolution when the initially outraged Evy finally confronts her own narrow minded attitudes towards her brother’s love. While the central tensions revolve around race and sexual orientation, the characters have enough realism and emotional balance to avoid falling into embarrassing tropes. To this end, Immediate Family has a broader appeal than just in the African American or gay communities, an accomplishment with which director Phylicia Rashad certainly has a stellar pedigree.
Immediate Family is a hilarious and emotional play, and has enough balance of funny and thought-provoking material to appeal to pretty much everyone. With nearly eight shows a week throughout the summer, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to check out this new American play.
For more information on Immediate Family, visit the play’s website at www.immediatefamilyplay.com (Facebook Immediate Family, Twitter @ImmediateFam). For tickets and showtimes, check out www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312.443.3800. All photographs by Michael Brosilow.