Family values turned upside down in riveting and riotous ‘Immediate Family’

The long-delayed reunion of any family can provide the basis for a three act play, particularly if there are more than a few skeletons in the closet. And in Paul Oakley Stovall’s riveting new dramedy, Immediate Family, the Bryant family is suddenly forced to unpack some deeply closeted emotions, resulting in hair pulling, a broken wine glass, and more than a few well placed laughs.

The last time the notions of sexual orientation and race were addressed together on Goodman’s Owen stage was in a controversial play by Thomas Bradshaw called Mary back in early 2011. The angle Bradshaw took to make his point — about how difficult it is to be a gay man in the African American community — was so bent, people left the theatre disoriented, angry and more than a touch offended. (I, for one, loved the play.)

In Immediate Family, Stovall takes a much more digestible approach, with the crux of this sitcom-esque family drama being the reveal that the prodigal son Jesse (Phillip James Brannon) isn’t just gay (the family, which consists of his siblings as mother and father have long passed, already knows that, much to his surprise), or that he’s planning to marry his partner, but that his partner, Kristian (Patrick Sarb), is (SPOILER ALERT!) white … and a Swede. And, surprise!, he’ll be joining the family wedding.

Yes, in Stovall’s hands supported by Phylicia Rashād’s spot-on direction, this is much more than a mere riff on the “guess who’s coming to dinner” trope. Rather, the deeply closeted Jesse, who has extracted himself from his family to live his life, is suddenly forced to make bold choices about who he wants to be vs. what people believe him to be. And through fearless acting combined with a smart and savvy script, we are on edge as we watch this fiercely loyal family attempt to keep it together in the face of vast misunderstandings about values, choice and love.

The core strength of this piece are the well-developed characters who each have a distinct point of view. In addition to Jesse we have Jesse’s younger brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden) who supports his brother but just doesn’t want it flaunted at his wedding (the reason for this family reunion); his half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams) who embraces Jesse and his partner unequivocally mainly due to empathy caused by her painfully ostracized upbringing (her constant drinking doesn’t hurt, either); and his “sister” Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), an out-and-proud, tell-it-like-it-is lesbian who’s Jesse’s fiercest supporter.

Finally, we have the hardened and wearily defensive older sister Evy (Shanésia Davis), who, as the family’s self-appointed matriarch, clings to history and tradition with a vice’s grip while choosing to turn a blind eye to the obvious. It’s the relationship between Jesse and Evy that ignites the stage with a climactic showdown that, the night I saw it, elicited spontaneous applause from the audience. Thrilling stuff.

Honestly, this was one of the strongest plays I’ve seen this season, and the cast tears. it. up. I urge you, take a visit with Immediate Family soon.

“Immediate Family” plays through August 5 at Goodman’s Owen Theatre. More info here >;

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