Adult siblings gather in the old family home in the upscale Hyde Park area of Chicago to catch up before the wedding of the youngest in a light-hearted, enjoyable new play at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Old family wounds, modern marriage realities, prejudices and half-hidden truths are cleverly examined in Immediate Family, a 90-minute play by Paul Oakley Stovall, that opened on Sunday.
Taking place in the 24-hour period before the rehearsal dinner, the four siblings fill each other (and the audience) in on their lives with a little more honesty than they are used to. Directed by Phylicia Rashad, Immediate Family offers sharp observations of upscale black life that should seem at-home to Rashad from her days on The Cosby Show.
With the parents gone, the family matriarch is now older sister Evy (Shanesia Davis), a deeply religious high school teacher, who is committed to educating students on African-American heroes and the prejudices they have overcome. The play, of course, deals later with the prejudices she needs to overcome.
The play’s main focus is on middle sibling Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), who has not come home for years, largely believing his family does not know he is gay. As younger brother, Tony, put it when he acknowledges they had guessed, “You are not really out if you leave things for others to find out.” Jesse admits to Tony, who is the groom-to-be, that he has recently become engaged too. He then shocks the family by with the introduction of his intended, Kristian, whom he hired as the wedding photographer (Mark Jude Sullivan). They are less shocked by the fact that it is a man, than the fact that he is white.
The normally easy-going, beloved Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden) also has a secret he is keeping from uptight Evy. His bride-to-be is four month’s pregnant.
Evy’s moral high-ground is further irritated by the arrival of Ronnie (Cynda Williams), a half-sister who is the living reminder of their deceased father’s secrets (she is his illegitimate child with a white mother). The relationship she has tried to forge as an adult with his half-siblings, mostly the men not Ely, shows that family life is not black and white (pun intended!). Everyone lives in the grey areas.
The final character in Immediate Family is a lesbian neighbor, Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), who is a family friend and sidekick to Tony. She adds levity, but at times it seems a bit over the top. With everyone else being family (or family to be), her character does seems a out of place at times.
Stovall’s play avoids delving into politics but does touch on religion. Evy’s faith leads her to resist Jesse’s pleas for acceptance and by extension to accept Kristian as “immediate family.” She first reacts to his color (noting that her brother would be “another black man of no use to his people” as a male role model if he married his partner). When Evy wonders how Kristian, who has a son, could marry Jesse and not consider the effect on the child, the photographer wisely points out, “My parents were straight. That didn’t make me straight.”
Eventually, in a sitcom-ish way over a card game, there is the inevitable family explosion. Evy finally gets that Immediate Family is not the old-fashioned quartet in the nucleus, but the broader sense of those you turn to and support through all of life’s changes.
Stovall’s script has some uneven edges, but Rashad and the excellent cast make the most of it. The ensemble in Immediate Family will be making audiences feel at home, particularly if they can relate to a discordant fractured family, at the Mark Taper Forum through June 7, 2015.
By Dyanne Weiss
Photo by Craig Schwartz/courtesy of Center Theatre Group