Several months ago, Portland Playhouse staged a musical called Bella: an American Tall Tale, and I hated it. Despite the production’s exuberant energy, I couldn’t get past what struck me as sloppy storytelling and a centering of racial stereotype – the big-booty Black woman – in an attempt at image reclamation that, to my mind, clearly backfired.
My friend Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an esteemed theater professor and a writer of far greater erudition than I can claim, saw the show, too – and thought it a delight.
As those of a certain generation used to say: Different strokes for different folks. And so on, and so on, and …
More recently, while ambling down the vertical land of Facebook, I saw a couple of other friends testifying about how much they loved a preview performance of Chicken & Biscuits, which opens officially on Saturday at Portland Playhouse, praising it as funny and heartwarming.
I’ve not seen the show, and I should stress that I recognize that one can’t and shouldn’t judge the production by the page. And who’s to say – except perhaps my Facebook friends and others who’ve seen it in previews – what alchemy director Cycerli Ash-Barlocker and her cast and crew may have brought to bear on the material. Surely, at least, we can expect sterling verisimilitude in the scenic design: The play is set primarily at a funeral in a Black church, and the Playhouse building formerly was a church in the heart of the city’s Black community.
Maybe the match between setting and facility was part of what attracted Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver to the play, which in any case already had a high profile. Written by actor Douglas Lyons (he was in the Broadway production of Beautiful), Chicken & Biscuits was part of a record eight shows by Black writers that got their Broadway shot last year as the industry began trying to come back from its long Covid shutdown. (Sort of like the first troops sent out of the trenches and into no-man’s-land, but whatever.) And the Playhouse, arguably more than any mainstream Portland theater, has foregrounded its commitment to Black representation in the work it does.
The bush I’m beating around here, though, is: Reading this play may have been the most painful theatrical experience I’ve had all year. “Almost Tyler Perry bad,” is among the notes I made amid the ordeal. Perry, of course, earned his status as a paragon of crass cultural specificity by being a crowd-pleaser.
But it’s sure not my crowd.
Nor the crowd a lot of critics are part of, if we’re to judge from the reviews of Chicken & Biscuits’ Broadway run.
From The New York Times: “Thin and mild conflicts … All of the characters’ characteristics are red herrings, and usually stale ones at that. … equal opportunity minstrelsy … the play feels dramatically complacent and underdeveloped.”
From the Guardian: “feels stale, forsaking an earnest reflection on family dynamics for cheap laughs …and faux intimacy.”
From Deadline: “brimming with stock characters, creaky jokes, tired references and easy, feel-good sermonizing. Bickering relatives speechifying with exposition and put-downs? Family secrets guessable even by the most distant outsider? Characters that can be summed up in one-word signifiers? Check, check and check. … When even the bratty teenager is still making Jerry Springer jokes, or the bigot mother misremembers the name of her son’s lover in every possible way but ‘Derwood,’ someone’s trove of cultural memes needs serious updating.”
Lyons’ narrative construction is solid enough, in part because it forsakes any ambition to complexity or originality. The family patriarch has died and the survivors get ready to meet at the funeral, lugging their various interpersonal baggage. Tensions build through petty sniping into a ginned up big-moment of action and supposed suspense. Then, resolution all around with hugs and bromides about the value of love and family.
One person’s heartwarming is another’s heartburn.
And – as was the case with Bella – I’m left to wonder at the selection process that brought us this play. Broadway pedigree aside, the script’s comfort-food intentions and cheap-swill delivery are apparent on the page.
It’s hard not to imagine that this is a matter of representation – the well-meaning goal of getting more Black stories and more Black artists onto the stage (and, the theory goes, more Black butts in the seats).
The Times review offered a conciliatory conclusion: “Representation matters. I see many great and necessary new works about the problem of Blackness in a racist society — or rather, the problem of whiteness. They are filled with anguish and unfunny funerals. What I rarely get to see are works about Black American life that are defiantly not problem plays. Their sunniness is just as necessary, however garish the aquamarine and pimped-out the corpse.”
But is it really? Sunniness is necessary in a climate ecosystem; I’m not so convinced that it is in an aesthetic one – or at least that its necessity in the abstract means that we have to embrace it in whatever form that happens to come our way. Are we greatly aided by Black representation with dialogue such as “Your Grandpa B just pimp walked his ass through them pearly gates”?
Rather than trying to argue that the show is not, in fact, cliched, the director of the Broadway production made an interesting counter-argument in Variety: “Zhailon Levingston, who with Chicken & Biscuits makes history as the youngest Black director in Broadway history, told Variety on opening night, ‘It starts in stereotype, and every other culture has been able to use their archetypes as a way to say something larger about society or specific about their culture. For so long, Black people, particularly in comedy, are not allowed to use our own archetypes.’”
Blacks aren’t allowed to use their own archetypes? Apparently Levingston has missed the entire history of Black stand-up comedy (and hip-hop, for that matter). And what is it – about the society at large or Black culture – that Lyons tells us? Family is important. Acceptance and understanding can take effort but are worthwhile. Love can heal.
So his play starts in stereotype and ends in platitude. So … progress?
I suppose this is equity of a sort: Black folk get to be pandered to with trite entertainments, just like anyone else.
The flattened stage
The flattened stage (theatrical edition)
Third Rail Rep’s presentations of the National Theatre’s – usually stellar – live-captured productions continues with Straight Line Crazy, a new play by the British playwriting titan David Hare. Ralph Fiennes stars.
Reading is fundamental
The University of Portland presents a reading of talented Portland playwright Claire Willett’s latest, How Can I Keep From Singing. PassinArt turns the dial to Radio Golf, the concluding play of August Wilson’s epic account of Black America in the 20th century. And Readers Theatre Gresham scales on one of the grand peaks of tragedy, Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The best line I read this week
“You are a writer, you have to have a wastepaper basket.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, to Elizabeth Anscombe, as quoted in a New York Times review of the book “Metaphysical Animals.”
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.