Who is in your immediate family? Is it nice and tidy, with Mom, Dad, you, and your 1.3 siblings? Or have things gotten a bit mixed up? Half-siblings from one or the other parent’s previous (or subsequent) marriage(s) or relationship(s)? A stepparent or two thrown in for good measure, and perhaps someone who actually shares no DNA or legal connection but is a vital part of the mix? Don’t even get me started on what happens when all you children grow up and form relationships of your own. Like the miracle of compound interest, the possibilities multiply geometrically.
Now, on the Mark Taper stage, we have the Bryant family on the eve of baby brother Tony’s (Kamal Angelo Bolden) wedding. The Bryants are a Hyde Park, upwardly mobile black family — think the Huxtables all grown, with mom and dad out of the picture. Uber-competent big sister Evy (Shanésia Davis) is in charge and living in the tidy and comfortable family homestead. The why and how of her dwelling there is never covered in Paul Oakley Stovall’s script; or if it is, the explanation is buried in the barrage of words delivered under Phylicia Rashad’s pressured direction. Oh boy, is Evy in charge — and in a tizzy. Speaking a mile a minute, she is ready to take aim and fire when handsome, accomplished brother Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark) walks through the door after a two-year silence and absence.
You will quickly learn that Jesse has been hiding in Minneapolis. He has been in his own personal closet. Yes he is gay; no he has not openly acknowledged this to his family; and yes it is not as big a secret as he believes it to be. Oh … he happens to be in a relationship. And, by the way, that nice friend of his who has volunteered his services to photograph the wedding — yeah, that friend — is Swedish. You can reckon what that means. You are forgiven if “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” comes to mind.
Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) from next door, everybody’s friend and virtual member of the family, bursts on the scene and dialogue switches to hip and black. Comic relief has come to Jesse’s rescue. If you are black, you can comfortably laugh at the stereotypes writ large. Black and gay … that is a problem. Not marrying a black woman … you are a traitor to your race, fella. Churchgoing big sister Evy knows the right thing to do. Get in line. It is all a matter of choice, but you, big guy, have no choice in the matter. One thing you can be sure about, that high yellow half-sibling Ronnie (Cynda Williams), the product of Papa Bryant’s unfortunate affair with a white woman? She is definitely not immediate family. Evy has a clear idea of who is in and who is out.
Jewish audiences comfortably laugh at ethnic jokes told in shorthand by Jewish comedians, but heaven help someone from another tribe who tries to sell the same material. Judging by the response of the opening night crowd, black audiences feel that level of comfort with “Immediate Family.” For a left-of-center whitey, trying at all times to show cultural sensitivity, but lacking even some of the vocabulary, the freely thrown digs often fall flat.
Playwright Stovall has packed the dialogue with barbs and toss-offs, relying on the energy of the cast, and the familiarity of audiences, to add depth to the bare outline of family history. Director Rashad has doubled down on the humor by speeding up the dialogue, layering line over line, and pushing Nina, Evy, and even Tony to comic extremes. Until the wobbly resolution of the last few minutes, “Immediate Family” is played to a specific audience and played for laughs. Efficiently delivered in 90 minutes, character development gets short shrift. Despite the best efforts of a talented cast, you can be forgiven for thinking you just walked out of a sitcom and never giving the material a second thought.
Families are complicated ecologies. The Bryants are a complicated bunch. There are fuzzy entry qualifications, warring factions, and bonds that can suffocate. It might be interesting to know more. Or maybe it would just be better to go grab a pizza and some beer. Your own family is out there somewhere with its own set of relationships, closets, and orbiting satellites.