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A CurtainUp Chicago Review
Immediate Family

Change is small. Change is personal. There are constant, tiny shifts happening all around the country and the world. They feel large to us because they are happening from within. Attitudes are changing. Immediate Family, for me, is all about these tiny shifts, tiny tremors.
Immediate Family
The cast of Immediate Family
A perfect play for Pride Month, this labor of love by Chicago writer Paul Oakley Stovall examines, raucously and gently, the challenge of how one minority learns to cherish another. Sure, it’s all too easy to feel better about the bigotry you’ve endured by nurturing your own. But then, of course, you automatically forfeit all the humanity you deny as you discriminate. The more you hate, the less of you is left to love—or to be loved.

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.

Immediate Family by Paul Oakley Stovall
Directed by Phylicia Rashad
Cast: Shane'sia Davis (Evy), J. Nicole Brooks (Nina), Patrick Sarb (Kristian), Phillip James Brannon (Jesse), Kamal Angelo Bolden (Tony), and Cynda Williams (Ronnie)
Scenery: John Iacovelli
Lighting: Heather Gilbert
Costumes: Ana Kuzmanic
Props: Jesse Gaffney
Running Time: 90 minutes
Goodman's Owen Theatre in association with About Face Theatre
From June 2 – Aug 5, 2012
Tuesdays 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays , 7:30 p.m.,Thursdays 7:30 p.m. ( matinees at 2 p.m. begin after July 10th),Fridays 8 p.m.,Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. ( No evening performances after July 8th)
Reviewed by Larry Bommer
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