About 20 years ago, Tyrone L. Robinson made his acting debut at Bristol Riverside Theatre in a production of Smokey Joe’s Café, a musical revue spotlighting the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Now, Robinson is back at his old stomping grounds as the director of Chicken & Biscuits, the final offering of the 2022-23 mainstage season that begins May 16.
“It’s amazing,” Robinson told The Times of his return to Bucks County. “Literally the moment that I stepped into the rehearsal studio, I felt like I was at home. I’ve never felt that way before, just walking into a space and feeling like I didn’t leave. And the experience I had 20 years ago was just so extraordinary. It was such a warm place, such a family environment to work in, and so coming back is wonderful.”
Robinson is leading the charge for the Philadelphia-area premiere of Chicken & Biscuits, a comedy by Douglas Lyons that originally debuted in 2020 at New York’s Queens Theatre. After this run was cut short due to the pandemic, the show was later presented at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre in October 2021, with Zhailon Levingston directing the production.
In Chicken & Biscuits, rivaling sisters Baneatta Mabry and Beverly Jenkins are burying their late father, but it’s the non-stop family drama that might be the death of them. Beverly, a single mother to teen La’Trice Franklin, is determined to show off her blessings to the congregation gathered to pay respect to her father. Meanwhile, Baneatta and her husband Reginald have their hands full with their daughter Simone and son Kelly, who brings his white Jewish boyfriend Logan to the service. Everyone quickly gets swept up in the proceedings after a mysterious guest reveals a family secret.
Playing Baneatta is nationally-renowned actress and entertainer Miche Braden, who is well-known for her on-stage portrayals of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. For Braden, it’s been a fun challenge to take on a character who’s much different from herself.
“She wants to make sure everything goes fine, nobody’s embarrassed, especially her,” Braden said of Baneatta. “And she’s also missing her dad. She was probably the one that was taking care of him because her sister was living elsewhere. So she’s just trying to hold everything and everybody together, and her husband is trying to keep her together.”
The characters of Chicken & Biscuits might butt heads, but according to Braden, this hasn’t been the case behind-the-scenes.
“It’s just a great cast,” she said. “Everybody has really locked in to the characters and we’re having fun. That’s not always the case in a lot of productions. But this one, I have to say we are having fun. Comedy is a very precise skill, and everybody was really locked into making it right. I think everybody really thought about who the characters were, and once we did the first reading, it just sailed and we were clicked.”
Robinson added, “There’s a lot of laughing going on. We’re having a great time, and it’s such an honor to be the Philadelphia premiere of the show. The show is being done all over the country. To be able to do the premiere here is just such an honor.”
The rest of the cast includes Gabrielle Lee as Beverly, Maya Imani as La’Trice, Walter Deshields as Reginald, Ashley Nicole Baptiste as Simone, Adrian Baidoo as Kenny, Alex Brightwell as Logan and Nellesa Walthour as the mysterious guest.
Both Robinson and Braden are confident that audiences will be laughing just as much as the actors have been. In fact, they might just feel like members of the on-stage family by the end of the show.
“It’s laugh-out-loud funny and really gets to the heart of universal themes, like sibling rivalries, how we all come together to heal when we’ve had hurts in our families, and really how we can laugh our way into healing, laugh our way to a better place as family,” said Robinson. “It’s one of those shows that I think, when people come to it not knowing what to expect, they will leave feeling like their souls have been fed.”
Bristol Riverside Theatre has organized a number of special events and programming in conjunction with Chicken & Biscuits. These include the usual pre- and post-show engagements (included with the price of the ticket), such as a catered reception after the May 18 opening performance; Friday Festival (complimentary beer and appetizers) on May 19; Wine Down Wednesday (crudité, desserts and wine) on May 24, at 6:30 p.m.; and Thirsty Thursday (an hour of complimentary snacks and beer before the show) on June 1.
Special programming also includes BRT’s inaugural Black Theatre Night on Friday, May 26, at 8 p.m. It’s an evening of celebrating and amplifying Black voices and access to Black theater for all audiences. This presentation of Chicken & Biscuits includes light refreshments and a post-show social mixer, where attendees can participate in a conversation with Robinson, community leaders and the cast. Advanced reservations are strongly encouraged.
“It’s such an amazing thing to be a part of that,” said Robinson. “They’re offering a ticket discount for that particular night, and it really is about creating more accessibility to audiences that don’t always get to come to Bristol, or don’t always have a connection to Bristol. It’s all about access, about creating a space where we are all saying, ‘Hey, we are all part of the community, we welcome every part of the community.’ ”
When asked if there’s anything he hopes audiences take away from Chicken & Biscuits, Robinson’s answer was simple: “Joy, joy, joy. It’s a good time, and if it’s their first time coming to the theater, I think this would be a good play for them. It’s a family play that really deals with family. Come ready, laugh and have a good time.”
“If they don’t take away joy, then they’re dead,” Braden chimed in. “It’s gonna be something that they will be smiling and laughing about for a long time to come until the next one comes along.”
If you go: Chicken & Biscuits is on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., for 21 performances that run May 16-June 4. Visit brtstage.org or call 215-785-0100 for tickets and more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com