Bill Cosby’s sweaters might never have been fashionable, but they were always comfortable. They were goofy, ostentacious, awkwardly sincere and ultimately would keep you warm on a long winter’s night. Such are the pleasures of Phylicia Rashad’s (aka Mrs. Huxtable’s) rambunctious production of “Immediate Family” a new play by Chicago playwright Paul Oakley Stovall.
The play begins, like so many before it have, with a homecoming. Jesse (Phillip James Brannon) has returned home to his South Chicago childhood home for the wedding of his good-natured slacker brother Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden). Jesse is of course harboring a (very poorly hidden) secret: he’s gay. And with his live-in boyfriend’s (Patrick Sarb) arrival at the house quite imminent, Jesse has to come out to his family once and for all. That includes coming out to his sister Evy (Shanesia Davis) a devout Christian bigot whose spitefulness at her brother’s sinful “choice” sets the stage for a number of dramatic showdowns.
With such old and creaky foundations, the play remains upright thanks to the tireless efforts of the A+ cast. Brannon and Davis are great as a show’s opposite poles: he soulful and guilt-ridden, she wound-up and guilt-apportioning, both equally stubborn. Sarb is likewise wonderful as Jesse’s white boyfriend, Kristian, giving him a depth of conviction and a generosity of spirit that make him more than just the plot device that he often obviously serves as. And holding up the pure comedic end are Bolden and J. Nicole Brooks as Nina, Jesse’s lesbian bestie from the block. Brooks especially has the kind of scenery-chewing supporting role that made me give a tiny cheer every time she walked onstage and a tiny moan whenever she left it.
But most importantly, it’s Rashad’s direction that makes the play work. The sense that love is ever present, no matter how bad things get and that a good laugh is always right around the corner, means that while the play might not dig as deep as it wants to, it certainly keeps moving better than it should. Like the fabled Cosby sweaters of old, it’s a little bit ridiculous but it’s also incredibly comfortable.