Douglas Lyons, Michael Urie, and Norm Lewis Talk Chicken & Biscuits

From the moment it was announced that Chicken & Biscuits would be moving to Broadway, social media has been ablaze. After a highly praised run at Queens Theatre in 2020, cut short by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new comedic play written by Douglas Lyons will open at Circle in the Square Theatre this fall. Before it even opens, the play has already made Broadway history: Lyons is one of seven Black playwrights with productions this season, and director Zhailon Levingston becomes the youngest Black director in Broadway history, at 27 years old. Chicken & Biscuits stars Broadway veterans Norm Lewis and Michael Urie, and making her Broadway debut is Deadwood actress Cleo King. The play, which follows the Jenkins family and a reunion that begins to unravel when a family secret is revealed at the patriarch’s funeral service, features largely Black creative and producing teams and cast — 18 of which are making their Broadway debuts. “Something that I love that Jonathan Larson did with Rent is introduce Broadway to a new generation of talent,” Lyons said. “I think Chicken & Biscuits is going to do just that.”

We caught up with Lyons, Lewis, and Urie to discuss the importance of this show, reopening Broadway in a historic way, and whether chicken and biscuits will actually be served.

Chicken & Biscuits is already making history before it even officially opens on Broadway. How does it feel to be part of this monumental production?

Douglas Lyons: Because my background is in acting first, I always knew that, if given the opportunity, I would want to showcase and amplify other really unique and talented people with my work. Part of what Zhailon and I were looking for in the casting process were what we called unicorns. I, specifically, like to find “the newcomer.” This production is for the culture, it’s for the new talent, it’s for the laughter, the joy, and the healing.

Norm Lewis: I am beyond thrilled to know that I will be a small part of this new landscape of theater that is highlighting diversity of culture and storytelling — and on Broadway in particular. The fact that such a young Black director has earned this opportunity is inspiring. It is always a thrill to relive that special moment through the eyes of someone making their Broadway debut. Having 18 Black artists [making their debuts] makes it that much more special for me, because I feel there will be more opportunities on the horizon. I pray that this is just the beginning of new works from writers and creators of all backgrounds.

Michael Urie: I couldn’t be happier! I feel very fortunate to have a spot in this season. This fall of seven plays by Black writers is so exciting and thrilling. It has the opportunity to create synergy, to bring audiences back and cultivate new audiences, and reopen Broadway in a way that could only have been created by Broadway shutting down. By that I mean we shut down and we all looked inward. We all had the time to look around our own house, to see what was working and what wasn’t. This incredible crop of artists making Broadway debuts, beloved playwrights getting new opportunities, and introducing plays that have never been on Broadway, is changing the landscape for the better. The entire creative team is people of color and, I mean, 18 Broadway debuts! When’s the last time you heard that?

Douglas, take us to the exact moment when you said, “OK, I’m going to write a comedic play that centers on a Black family.” Give us an idea of what you were going through, or what inspired you.

DL: The original idea of Chicken & Biscuits dealt with a queer couple and how much homophobia and the Black family sometimes rub up against each other. Then I had my own family experience — when we buried my uncle — that provided the spark for the play. Chicken & Biscuits became a culmination of different stories and personalities from my family. My mother is one of seven, my father’s one of eight. I’m an only child, technically, but have always been surrounded by lots of cousins, and uncles, and aunts — and a lot of Black women, and they all are spicy and funny. Once I figured out my pen, and that I had the ability to highlight and give nuance, love, and space to Black women — which is not always allowed — and do that with joy, I was like, Oh, that’s a wrap.

What was your favorite thing about writing this show?

DL: I am still refining it as we speak because I’m a maniac. However, my favorite part is that I get to be as silly as I want to, authentically, in my own voice. There’s a certain nuance to a Black person in a Black church — things are said, things happen that you laugh at, and you don’t think twice about it. In the theater, I’m able to put it on display as comedy. The ability to be authentic is actually the most exciting thing.

Norm and Michael, why is Chicken & Biscuits the first Broadway production post-shutdown that you chose to be a part of?

NL: I am the one who is blessed because, actually, the show chose me. I have known Douglas for a bit now, and I’ve worked with him on another masterpiece that he has created. The past couple of years he kept telling me about this project and that he would like for me to be a part of it. We could never get the timing right until now, and I am so grateful we have.

MU: I’m a coproducer of this queer theater festival called Pride Plays. I first got to know Douglas through a musical that he wrote that we were going to do in Pride Plays in 2020, before the shutdown. When he reached out to do a virtual reading of Chicken & Biscuits at the beginning of this year, I read one scene of the script and was laughing my ass off. I didn’t even have to finish reading the script: I was just so happy to be laughing. So I said, “Yes, I am in.” I wanted to do this play on Broadway the minute I read it, because it’s totally hilarious, and extremely moving. It goes from side-splitting laughter to lump-in-your-throat emotion on a dime. I’m doing it because it is a play about family, and it’s filled with surprises, and it’s the kind of thing that we should have in a theatre. We should have something that’s going to delight and surprise audiences when we come back.

Douglas, your play centers on the Black church. For many in the Broadway audience, this is going to be their first encounter with an that culture and its many traditions. Is this play going to really take us there?

DL: Oh, there’s a full sermon! This play is meant to make the audience feel like a part of this family. It’s a proper service. When the audience first arrives, they will be met with gospel music. They will see the cast getting ready to go into the funeral. They will see them talking about losing a grandparent. They will see the grief, and the joy, and the beauty. We’re using the church to do what we do in a Broadway space. It’s why people have latched on to this show. They are not made to feel uncomfortable, they feel welcomed — as you should feel when you go to a service in a Black church.

Norm, you play the pastor, Reginald. Are there any pastors you drew inspiration from, and how do you connect with this particular character?

NL: Reginald is a man who is trying to keep the peace within his own household and yet showing his vulnerability by wanting to be the best he can be when he steps into what is considered to be some big shoes. I come from a church background. My father was the chairman of the Deacon Board, and my grandfather Reverand Orell Lewis was a preacher. I can also say the two pastors that I grew up with, Reverand P.L. Lias and Reverand Willie C. Barnes, were definitely major influences in my spiritual journey as a child and young adult. I will be invoking their spirits every night and bringing as much of my “Black Baptist” Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church experience as I can.

Michael, you play Logan, the character who is sort of the outsider of this Black family. How do you connect with this character?

MU: Logan is a fish out of water in this situation. I think anyone watching, whether they’re used to being in families like this or not, would relate to Logan as the outsider joining a new family — I know I do! One of Logan’s lines is “I’m Jewish and I haven’t even been to a synagogue, much less a church,” so to spend a day in a church with a churchgoing family is different. He’s also this white guy dating a Black man, and being brought into this space he’s never been to. He’s just going so far in. I remember the first time I went to church with my partner’s family — I was very nervous. All I could think was, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the traditions. I don’t know when to stand, or when to kneel.” The way Logan deals with being in church is hilarious, and at times very sweet.

After the year and a half we’ve had, why is Chicken & Biscuits the show people need to see now that Broadway is reopening?

NL: This has definitely been a very challenging year — socially, politically, spiritually, emotionally, and too many more lys to name. Chicken & Biscuits is a fun escape that many people will be able to relate to, no matter what your background. You will immediately see someone who reminds you of a family member or friend who is in your world. And in the middle of all the chaos, there is hope and resolve. You will definitely leave the theatre with a smile on your face.

MU: Broadway needs Chicken & Biscuits because this play is about family, warts and all. Broadway needs to remember that it’s a family, warts and all. I think that’s why this year of being shut down and looking inward is going to make Broadway better. I believe in it, because I believe that Broadway intends to be, and can be, a fair and equitable place. This play will help remind us all that we’re in this together, and that we don’t have to be the same to be in a family. We don’t have to agree to be in a family, but we do have to support each other in a family. This play really does that. You’ll go from laughing hysterically to nearly crying within seconds, watching this play. That, to me, makes our play so special.

DL: If you’ve lost someone, if you loved someone, if you need to laugh, if you just need to be in space and in communion with other people, this is the play for you.

Finally, the people want to know, will chicken and biscuits actually be served?

DL: It’s definitely something that we’ve discussed! Zhailon and I are dreaming up possibilities. We are aware of the chatter, and we’re listening!

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