Sometimes it’s OK to be predictable if what you have to say bears saying again.
Immediate Family, Paul Oakley Stovall’s first play, now at the Mark Taper Forum (it was produced in L.A. under another name in 2008), starts out as a high-spirited comedy, a kind of super-polished sitcom that centers on a group of African-American siblings who grew up in upscale Hyde Park outside Chicago. While it never stops trying to entertain, somewhere along the way the play shifts in tone. The boisterous riffs and one line zingers don’t disappear exactly, but they do take a back seat to our deepening understanding of character and motive, and to what the play has to say about tolerance and honesty with ourselves.
Evy (Shanesia Davis), the Bryant family matriarch, is a high school history teacher, an attractive but inflexible woman who’s nonetheless kept the fires burning in the family’s well-appointed home since her parents passed away a few years back. Her brother Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark) has come to town to attend the wedding of their younger brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). Jesse, who is gay, has plans to introduce his family to his lover Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), a photographer from Sweden who’s volunteered to do the wedding photos for free, and who, not incidentally, has just proposed marriage. Also part of the pre-wedding gathering is half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams), an artist from Brussels with whom Evy is at odds, and a neighbor, Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), a flamboyant gay woman as at home in the Bryant house as if it were her own.
At first we assume that the crisis that looms has to do with Jesse’s sexual preferences. He’s told Evy and Tony only that Kristian is a photographer but hasn’t mentioned that they are lovers. But when Kristian does make an appearance a few hours later, it’s not the relationship between the two men that provokes Evy’s stony silence and Tony’s dropped jaw — it's the fact that Kristian is white. With that revelation, all the anxieties and resentments that have been simmering for years burst open.
A lot of what makes Immediate Family so involving is the skill with which Stovall has interwoven his exploration of race, gender and bigotry in America with the particulars of his characters. In the play it is Evy who is the prime villain, but a scene she has with Jesse makes crystal clear the forces which have shaped her narrow perspective. Davis is stellar in the role.
Kristian is written to be more than just the outsider whose existence provokes conflict. He comes replete with another life that has shaped his wants and needs. He’s gentlemanly and warm, and Sullivan’s rendering is all charm. You understand why Jesse loves him and why the two belong together.
Much of the production’s pulsing energy can be credited to Phylicia Rashad’s exemplary direction. Everyone does fine work, including Clark, whose Jesse is likable and real. There are scenes where people shout over each other that seem lifted from real life — a desirable quality in this kind of play. And scenic designer John Iacovelli’s handsome home has you wanting to move right in.
GO! Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through June 7. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org.
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