Review: Laughs and Truisms Flow in New Horizon’s ‘Chicken & Biscuits’


Truisms abound in the laugh-out-loud comedy Chicken & Biscuits, with one in particular that bears repeating: 

“Family is a loaded word.”

And to that I say, “Amen!”

There are many occasions to say, “Amen,” punctuating a point in Douglas Lyons’ classic ’70s sitcom pilot masquerading as a play. 

New Horizon Theater’s production of Chicken & Biscuits, at City Theatre’s Lillie Theatre through June 18, boasts stellar performers who know how to sell the funny, even when the slapstick comedy teases a sense of something familiar. 

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)

The play takes us to the funeral of pastor and patriarch Bernard Jenkins, and into the rivalry of two estranged sisters, as different as hot pink and black and white.

Responsible, reliable older sister Baneatta (Rita Gregory) and her pastor husband Reginald (Sheldon Ingram) know a hurricane is blowing from the South when Baneatta’s sister arrives for their father’s funeral.

Dressed in tight-fitting, boobs-overflowing hot pink and ready to rumble is Beverly (Karla C. Payne). To have seen Payne just last month in the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company drama Pyramid Builders and then to see her here is a true expression of the range of an actor. She navigated very different and deep waters in the previous role, but here she gets to let loose with a character whose mere presence screams bold, unfiltered ferocity.

Single mom Beverly and daughter La’Trice (Tajionna Clinton), an aspiring rapper with self-confident flair and unchecked attitude of her own, are ready to stir a pot that’s already simmering.

The usually unflappable Baneatta seems to be unnerved by mysterious phone calls, adding to the worries of her doting husband, who is taking over his father-in-law’s Connecticut church. Ingram, the WTAE-TV news reporter, navigates his Pittsburgh stage debut with the ease of anveteran, whether trying to calm his wife or delivering a fiery sermon.

Pastor Reggie is the accepting of parent of his gay son, Kenny – Mils “M.J.” James, dapper and demonstrative in a showy yet sympathetic role. Kenny arrives with his partner and fellow “thespian,” Logan Leibowitz (Cole Vecchio) – who Beverly refuses to call by his real name (Lucas and Lavender are among her choices) to show her disapproval. La’Trice simply calls him “white boy,” and Kenny’s straight-laced sister Simone (Shakirah Stephens) would seem to have no use for Logan, either.

When Simone refers to being accepting of Kenny’s “lifestyle,” he schools her with another truism: “It’s not a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s who I am.”

As Logan, Vecchio gets to say one of my favorite, seemingly throwaway lines about director Casey Nicholaw and The Book of Mormon

The reason for the mysterious phone calls becomes clear when another character (Angelique A. Strothers) shows up for the funeral, but by then, we have a clear picture of each character and their relationships, and it’s believable when, say, a tipsy Beverly wonders aloud why Bernard Jenkins gave his daughters names that begin with “B.”

It is also in character when Beverly, feeling like an outsider at her own father’s funeral, is the one who shows the most kindness to fellow outsider Logan. 

The parts come together with energy and empathy, under the direction of Eileen J. Morris, on an evocative set by frequent New Horizon designer Herb Newsome. Deryck Tines Mitchell’s costume designs are memorable – particularly a certain hat that might take you to church with its unexpected entrance.

Chicken & Biscuits covers a lot of territory for a show that does not break new ground, yet it’s a comforting feeling, the combination of humor and the familiar, and I found myself laughing out loud as I haven’t for quite a while at the theater. 

I realized part way through that I was caught up in the feeling of watching a ’70s sitcom, and I, along with the rest of the audience, was the laugh track. As comedian and variety show host Flip Wilson liked to say, “What you see is what you get.” And as they said decades later on Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”


New Horizon Theater’s production of Chicken & Biscuits is at City Theatre’s Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theater, South Side, Thursday-Sunday, through June 18, https://www.onthestage.tickets/show/new-horizon-theater/6416c5f51d3b060e3dc13636/tickets

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