You know how sometimes a man goes out and philanders? Ever wonder what would happen if all the children he had sired both legitimately and illegitimately came together? Would they fight? Would it be awkward? Would they take to each other like fish in another fish’s water? Would there be resentments, or would they all come together to form their own sort of immediate family for better or for worse? This is precisely what Paul Oakley Stovall has set out to examine in his relatively recently penned play Immediate Family.
It is a mellow and understated Tuesday night at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles. Save the Mark Taper forum, the one theatre entertaining guests this early in the week. Audience members the city over file into the theatre past the green Kermit the Frog upholstered chairs, past the arrestingly gorgeous set on the ¾ round stage–a virtual house designed by master craftsmen John Iacovelli. Smooth sounds of Maxwell and what I can only deduce as a male-voiced sounding Sade echo the auditorium over. The fact that I cannot hear the singer well enough to place him or her is merely a testament to just how packed and consequently loud this settling house is on this day before hump day. Irrespective of everything, the opening serenade and the vision of the set is seriously enough to make me want to go up on it to initiate an all audience, pre-performance dance party, followed by a nap on the downy comforting couch center stage before Jesse’s character unravels it to oblivion for his bed in the nighttime fancy…
Set in a beautifully majestic house (which looks like it could be a Tudor Mansion) in Hyde Park Chicago, this play begins the morning before youngest sibling Tony’s wedding. Our story opens with the eldest, most overly responsible sister Evy in the middle of a proudly practiced oration of an historical political speech for her methodically taught middle school class in black history. All this while attempting to juggle all the balls, pins, and swords of Tony’s wedding the very next day relying on very little help from the family of the bride.
On the horizon before the celebrated ceremony–the arrival of three additional siblings/half siblings. Jesse whom Nina, the sister from another mother affectionately refers to as a “bald Kojak” will descend from Minneapolis. Nina, the obvious jokestress of the family arrives from across town simultaneously with the so-called smooth scalped one, and last but not least Ronnie from Brussels weighed down by bottles and bottles of booze. Not only does Ronnie have a different mother from the original trio of siblings with the same pair of parents–Evy, Jesse and Tony—her mother just happens to be white. To make things even more textural, eldest brother Jesse, in all his well-muscled, suave 70’s television detective machismo just happens to be gay. He also hasn’t exactly disclosed this fact to everyone in the family namely the conservative, religious and controlling Evy—who lords all somewhat over this black Brady Bunch minus one.
To layer things even further, Jesse’s partner has been assigned to photograph the wedding. He is also a hale and hearty Swede, and at various parts of the play can be observed carrying on brief conversations in Swedish with Jesse whose aptitude for this additional language is really quite notable.
The crux of the play encompasses defusing tension surrounding the character of Evy who seems to get ruffled and upset at every turn, not the least of which will center around Tony’s impending nuptials, his fiancée’s family’s alleged lack of assistance, and pretty much every suggestion anyone makes contrary to any process or opinion she possesses.
She will balk at the white stranger’s descent into their abode and, despite his cheery, convivial disposition along with his generous dispensation of gifts. Initially she does not understand why this non-member of their non-immediate family is so inclusive in their immediate familial activities, and when Jesse reveals the true nature of their relationship, after much overt snippishness on Evy’s part, concluding in an ultimate blow up to beat all blow ups, let’s just say there is much to resolve.
I love the setup to this play, to speak nothing of its most polished and visceral execution. Stovall clearly not only has a talent for writing dialogue but raising stakes in all the right places.
There were however a few aspects of the story I questioned to greater or lesser degree. Firstly, the play started off with all manner of anticipation regarding not only the arrival of each sibling but even more notably, Tony’s forthcoming wedding ceremony. While I eventually came to understand that this story really revolved around the siblings and their relationships, the wedding felt much too heavily built up such that I remember feeling significantly let down that we did not get to follow the characters into the next day and meet the bride. Moreover, it seems that some of the dramatic tension might have been even more harrowing (even comedic) in the eye of such a hallowed ceremony.
It wasn’t clear to me exactly who Evy was until about 45 minutes into the play. (Though in all fairness I own the fact that I might have missed something during the first few minutes of orienting myself to the bright lights and human presence on the stage. I will also admit that I dropped my pen at least once during this period and had some difficulty locating it.) Even so, I could not deduce whether Evy was a young looking mother or young looking older sister until it was more transparently spelled out for me 45 minutes after lights up.
As talented as J. Nicole Brooks was in her portrayal of half sister, and family jokester Nina, I felt the character’s goofball posturing and catch phrase slinging slowed the plot at times. Moreover, I might have actually laughed at, or rather with, Nina if she had truly made any verbally sharp witticisms but sadly there was not much there in the way of true and original comedy and at times the humor as written (or not written) just felt forced and ultimately anticlimactic.
I also felt a little beat over the head with Evy’s overt racism towards Kristian, not as a matter of fictitious principle of course. Dramatically speaking said prejudice worked quite well. It was the overt aspect of it that gave me pause. It all seemed a little too easy—gratuitous in a sense. This opinion is tempered in particular by the fact that as a child growing up in the 70s/80s, after having been exposed to the likes of Archie Bunker and George Jefferson (though both satirical comedies) any and all shock value and/or stunning controversy is lost on me after that. Back in the late 20th century, that sort of exploration of unconcealed racism worked best and worked at the exactly right time. But, in this, the middle of the second decade of the 21st century time has tempered it such that no matter who is reduced to feeling such rumblings of prejudice, whether black or white, he or she would probably not register it in such a black and white manner—pun sort of–intended.
While I understand the above might still not be the case in the deep south or Hicksville U.S.A. (excuse the brisk stereotyping) the character we are examining is an educated woman residing in Chicago, sensitive to racial issues herself by the nature of her teachings. As such, I had a difficult time believing she would not have suffered more of an inner conflict within her psyche about this thusly adding yet another layer to the all too palpable tension–in turn generating a slightly more interesting and realistic character study.
Really though, aside from the above four, mostly minor to somewhat more key yet subjective concerns, this production was exceedingly slick and polished. Directed by Phylicia Rashad, both the pacing, and choreography of the play moved like clockwork. Though mentioned once before, I will declare again that John Iacovelli never disappoints with his sets that made me want to nestle into said world, to speak nothing of Original Music & Sound Design by Joshua Horvath which beckoned me similarly. Costume design by Esosa is most arresting to enticing and lighting by Elizabeth Harper, most atmospheric and inviting.
Last but not least, let us not forget the cast in all its glory. Shanesia Davis as Evy is aptly irritating (in a most effectual and good way) and at the same time sympathetic—a mystery wrapped inside of a conundrum: A circle in a square’s clothing. Kamal Angelo Bolden as Tony exhibits the perfect combination of little brotherish sass combined with a contemporary maturing reluctance towards change. Appropriately sassy in her own right: J. Nicole Brooks as Nina. Again, she does a very good job at playing the character as it was written even though it wasn’t my favorite written character. Cynda Williams as Ronnie is simply stunning, graceful, and likeable in spite of her character’s drinking problem. Last but most notably not least, both Bryan Terrell Clark as Jesse and Mark Jude Sullivan as Kristian make not only a lovely couple but a very sympathetic and texturally arresting duo as they come out to the world one by one, yet together!
Immediate Family runs at the Mark Taper Forum until June 7th.
For tickets and information, please visit: