By Sharon Eberson
There’s a name on the cast list that might make you stop and say, “Whoa, that Sheldon Ingram?” Yes, indeed, it is the WTAE-TV reporter who has been branching out into acting and voice work, including playing the mayor of New York City on Law & Order: SVU in a September episode and voicing a demon in the Netflix feature film The Deliverance, directed by Lee Daniels.
The play is about “love, racism, forgiveness and healing in a comedically complex Black family,” as the bickering Jenkins sisters and their extended family gather for the funeral of their patriarch. Ingram steps into the role played on Broadway by Norm Lewis. As Reginald, husband of Baneatta, he will be delivering the eulogy amid hopes that he will become the next pastor of his father-in-law’s Connecticut church.
A more familiar theater name to Pittsburghers is director Eileen J. Morris, the artistic director of Ensemble Theatre in Houston, Texas, who makes frequent returns to New Horizon Theater. Morris lived in Pittsburgh for seven years as artistic and managing director of Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh and has also directed at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.
From left, the cast of New Horizon Theater’s Chicken & Biscuits, outside the one-time church doors of City Theatre: Mils (MJ) James, Tajionna Clinton, Rita Gregory, Shakira Stephens and Sheldon Ingram (Images: LionessPhotography)
Chicken & Biscuits is produced by New Horizon at the Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre, City Theatre’s previously named Hamburg Studio Theatre. Dr. Lillie was the founder of Kuntu, and worked with City co-artistic directors Marc Masterson and Monteze Freeland, at different career stages.
“It just means the world to me and makes me weepy to think about, because I worked very closely with Dr. Lillie … and several of the artists that are in this play have worked closely with Dr. Lillie. It’s like a homecoming. It’s like her spirit is already there, guiding us and shaping what we are about to do in the journey that we’re undertaking with this play,” Morris said.
Joining Ingram in the cast of Chicken & Biscuits are Cole Vecchio, Angelique A. Struthers, Rita Gregory, Mils “MJ” James, Karla Spirit-Lead Payne and Tajionna Clinton.
Morris was attracted to the comedy before its Broadway run, which ended abruptly, after several cast bouts with COVID.
“It was really quite funny, and I just felt it speaks to the mission and vision of the theater that I work with in Houston. And so, anytime I find a play that I think works, I always bring it to Joyce [Meggerson-Moore] and New Horizon,” Morris said.
She also noted that it will be done in Pittsburgh before directing it back to Houston.
Chicken & Biscuits, by Douglas Lyons, is among the most produced plays in the country during the past year, perhaps because of what The New York Times’ Jesse Green had to say in his review: “This family comedy, with its cheek and secrets and eulogies and amens, wants to offer audiences living in bad times an old-fashioned good one.”
“It speaks to families and legacy and spirituality and family dynamics and what happens when a loved one, a patriarch passes. For me, that’s the elements of human life,” Morris said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, this will really work not only with African-American audiences, but with all audiences. ’Cause unfortunately, we all have to go, we all will be involved with people that make transitions. And there always is something that happens within that, some family dynamic, whether that be love or sibling rivalry or secrets that unfold. And that’s what this play does. It’s layered; it unfolds and unwraps.”
The squabbling sisters of Chicken & Biscuits are just one of the elements of comedy and those family dynamics at their father’s funeral.
Morris said that “old-fashioned” feeling comes from the classic comedic eruption when family members clash at traditional gatherings, especially ones that were expected to be solemn occasions.
The director notes that Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , is about the dynamics of family members gathering for what should be a celebration, but all hell breaks loose when they are under one roof.
“What happens when we’re going to the funeral?,” she asks. Then she proceeds to explain, in terms of Chicken & Biscuits:
“Well, somebody’s nervous – the son-in-law has to now become the preacher, so he’s nervous about that. His wife is caught up in the fact that her daddy has just died, and ‘I don’t have time to deal with your issues. I gotta deal with my own issues.’ But yet he needs nurturing. So you have to deal with that. All right? The children are coming home – Oh Lord, the children are coming home! But one of them’s coming home with somebody that they met before and they really didn’t care for him, or they were just being in their own feelings about things. All right? Now, the other sibling’s come home, and we really don’t get along. Why? Because she’s the sexy aunt that always thinks that she looks better than everybody else. And I’m the more conservative, reserved person. …”
There’s a family secret, too, but that’s to be kept under wraps for the reveal.
What’s no secret is the emotional kick that Morris feels about being back in Pittsburgh, with this play, in this theater.
“First of all, I’m honored anytime I get to create art, and I don’t take it lightly that we are able to share stories, hear voices, bring people together and have varied experiences within that art that they’re seeing. So I’m very grateful for that,” Morris said.
“It also seems perfect that it’s going to be in a theater named for Dr. Lillie, and that New Horizon and shows like this are finding their way there.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
New Horizon Theater’s production of Chicken & Biscuits is at City Theatre’s Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theater, South Side, Thursday through Sunday, May 25-June 18, https://www.onthestage.tickets/show/new-horizon-theater/6416c5f51d3b060e3dc13636/tickets