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A CurtainUp Chicago Review
By Larry Bommer
Staged with almost too much energy by Phylicia Rashad (the former mother in The Cosby Show), this sumptuously produced offering from Paul Boskind, Ruth and Stephen Hendel, and About Face and Goodman theaters takes only 90 minutes to allow an African-American family to make the kind of quiet changes that make history happen.
The occasion that has reassembled a fractured family in their Hyde Park Home is the imminent wedding of Tony Bryant (Kamal Angelo Bolden) to his pregnant (and unseen) fiancée. Returning to the family manse (stylishly imagined by John Iacovelli) that he abandoned for San Francisco is elder son Jesse (Phillip James Brannon in a richly nuanced role). This secretive young man has brought his white Swedish lover Kristian Silborn (wonderful Patrick Sarb) as the professional photographer who will document the wedding. But, Christian as his name, Kristian wants to marry Jesse as much as to love him--but first Jesse has to out himself to his loved ones.
Unfortunately, perhaps because he’s still oppressed by bad memories of his punitive dad (a toxic legacy hard to exorcise even after he’s dead), Jesse hasn’t prepared his siblings for who Kristian really is. The rambunctious lesbian neighbor Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) is cool with the cute Nordic dreamboy she calls “Christina.” Tony can accept gay love but he’s miffed that Jesse didn’t marry within the race. Jesse’s half-white half sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams), now happily living in Belgium with her white husband, remembers how hard it was for Jesse’s family to accept her. (Miscegenation, of course, was the first big challenge to marriage in the black culture and churches.) But, however broad-minded, Ronnie has issues with Kristian for having conceded his son to his ex-wife in Stockholm.
The biggest family division gapes between Jesse and his unhappily married sister Evy (a tensile Shanesia Davis), an upright teacher who refuses to consider Bayard Rustin a civil rights hero because he was gay. Her rigidly righteous quarrel with Jesse brings up a host of still-simmering conflicts. Has Jesse abandoned his race by turning gay and then, adding insult to injury, loving a white guy? Why did he choose to thwart God’s plan for him to found a family (except that Evy’s husband doesn’t want children either)? And who really knows what that plan is without also playing God?
Happily, Stovall refuses to make Evy a screaming stereotype of ranting homophobia. This lonely lady carries a lifetime’s load of unappreciated pain for her sacrifices at trying to keep a changing family together—and Jesse, she fears, has brought home more pointless pain to endure. Strangely, it’s Kristian, her seeming opposite (white, Swedish, and gay but also religious) who builds a bridge that neither imagined possible. A very loud play quickly dwindles into a calm/balm--where the bedrock reality is Kristian and Jesse sleeping happily together in Evy’s Murphy bed.
Along with a ton of sitcom-sized laughs and loudly overlapping arguments, Rashid perfectly manages a small miracle: She displays the full but sometimes shaky decency that Stovall gives his beloved characters. These six souls are tested travelers trying to make the best of life by learning how to love—sometimes later than they expected to. There’s no preaching here (but religion has its place), just inspired performances as real as the next family.
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