By Darlene Donloe
The family dynamic is tricky!
It can be loving and caring. But it can also be tense, chaotic, arduous, volatile, invidious and vindictive.
All of those emotions are present in playwright Paul Oakley Stovall’s brilliantly staged comedy Immediate Family, currently playing through June 7 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
The show, aptly directed by Tony Award-winner and The Cosby Show matriarch Phylicia Rashad, is about the Bryants, a black family in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood who come together for the wedding of the younger son, Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), the middle child, hasn’t revealed to his family that he is gay, so he remains closeted. However, he has invited his Swedish photographer boyfriend, Kristian (Mark Jude Sulivan), to shoot the wedding. Bi-racial half-sister Ronnie, played spectacularly by Cynda Williams is a breath of fresh air – with a drinking problem. Ronnie has a contentious relationship with Eve, the oldest sister and matriarch of the family who, while trying to uphold the tradition of her conservative parents, is straight-laced and unaccepting of her brother’s alternative lifestyle or her half-sister’s ‘scandalous’ lineage.
The family’s childhood lesbian neighbor, Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), brings comic relief. Hers is a scene stealing performance that frantically brings the funny.
Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan) brings just the right amount of naiveté when it comes to understanding the black family dynamic. The character isn’t fully developed, but Sullivan holds his own.
This is a striking ensemble with no weak links.
The show explores ever-changing ideas about marriage, race, sexual orientation and family. The notion of a normal family quickly goes out the window. When the Bryant siblings come together for the first time in five years to attend the wedding, the family reunion quickly becomes a high-larious family showdown. Chaos and comedy ensues. Secrets are revealed and long-held beliefs are challenged as a spirited game of bid whist brings all of the family dysfunctions to the table.
What’s interesting about Stovall’s piece is that it could easily be played as a drama or a comedy. The comedy allows some of the uncomfortable drama to go down a bit easier. He first wrote the play a decade ago, under the title As Much as You Can. Stovall worked on the play, tightening up the writing through productions in Chicago, New York and a 2008 run at L.A.'s Celebration Theatre before it played at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2012 in its current incarnation, as Immediate Family.
(l-r) Mark Jude Sullivan and Bryan Terrell Clark
Kamal Angelo Bolden
Rashad makes great use of the stage – even using the front of the stage as the outdoors. Her even-handed direction makes for a crisp and nicely paced show.
John Iacovelli’s set design is comfortable and functional. Esosa’s costumes, Elizabeth Harper’s light design, Joshua Horvath’s original music and sound design and Carol F. Doran’s wig and hair design round out a successful production.
J. Nicole Brooks
(l-r) Shanesia Davis and Mark Jude Sullivan
Immediate Family, directed by Phylicia Rashad and written by Paul Oakley Stovall, stars Kamal Angelo Bolden, Shanesia Davis, J. Nicole Brooks, Mark Jude Sullivan, Bryan Terrell Clark and Cynda Williams.
Immediate Family, CTG/Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through June 7, 2015; Tickets $25-$85; For information: www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213 628-2772
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no!), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (Oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Immediate Family gets an E (excellent).
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, with no intermission