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Playwright Douglas Lyons and director Zhailon Levingston discuss their new comedy Chicken & Biscuits
According to Chicken & Biscuits playwright Douglas Lyons, from the moment he and director Zhailon Levingston met, they had "an unspoken bond and understanding as Black queer men." The two connected by chance at Britton & The Sting's very first concert on June 18, 2018 (something Lyons recalls because it was his ex's birthday). While chatting, Levingston revealed he was a director and Lyons said he was working on a comedy about a very dramatic Black family funeral. Levingston offered to read the 25-page draft of Chicken & Biscuits, and he was so impressed, he immediately set up a table read with the Front Porch Readings Series starring Lillias White. Further development at Queens Theatre's 2019 New American Voices Series and Frank Silvera's Workshop at the Billie Holiday Theatre followed. There was even a full-fledged production at Queens Theatre in early 2020, which was cut short by COVID-19, and a subsequent virtual reading during the pandemic.
But what really changed the show's trajectory was Instagram. Lyons, who began his Broadway career as a performer in The Book of Mormon and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, noticed that he was being followed by Tony Award-winning producer Hunter Arnold (Hadestown, Moulin Rouge!, Dear Evan Hansen). So, Lyons messaged Arnold, inviting him to read the script. After months of following up, Lyons received a five-paragraph email from Arnold apologizing for taking so long. He had finally read the play and he wanted to work together.
That was in early summer of 2020. Now Lyons is making his Broadway playwriting debut with Chicken & Biscuits at the Circle in the Square Theatre with Levingston, age 27, the youngest Black man in history to direct a show on the Great White Way. TDF Stages talked with these groundbreaking artists about their fruitful collaboration, the power of joy and persistence, and how to make Broadway more inclusive.
Juan Michael Porter II: Douglas, can you speak to why you chose to focus on Black joy in Chicken & Biscuits instead of the usual Black tragedy?
Douglas Lyons: I am vocally and artistically pushing back against this notion that in order for Black women to be on stage, they have to go through trauma. We have to combat that not just on Facebook but in the world. That's what's different about this moment. People look at the play and think, "Oh, this is like Tyler Perry. We've seen this before." But no. You may have seen these images before, but you have never seen this joy and this healing. I've even had white Jewish women in their sixties come up to us to say, "Thank you for this." Because our stories are universal if you let us tell them.
Porter II: Zhailon, was it difficult to take the play from the Queens Theatre to a virtual reading to Broadway so quickly?
Zhailon Levingston: There were tons of difficulties, but then directing is just problem-solving. And directing a show on Broadway is like creating a show anywhere. Though at this scale, you're dealing with other things that are unique to Broadway, including a culture that is embedded and fixed. I've been fortunate to push against both in my theatrical and organizing work.
Porter II: Was there anything in particular that made it all come together for you?
Levingston: Making sure that people were working efficiently and effectively, and that communication never dropped off. It's bound to happen at some point, but what do you do to put those pieces back together? With this timeline of only a month and a half of preproduction, instead of grasping at time, we kept the rehearsal period relaxed and went from there.
Porter II: Douglas, how does it feel to be on the other side of Broadway as a playwright instead of a performer?
Lyons: I wake up every day and I think I'm going to a wedding. It's been joyous. This moment is teaching me that I can belong and that the theatre world wants more of these stories and more of this joy. Not just from me but from all the writers who didn't think they had a chance at this space. It's not just about Chicken & Biscuits, it's about its spin-off three seasons from now because we have opened the door for producers and theatre owners to think a little wider.
Porter II: I like the sound of that. Changing the landscape of Broadway.
Lyons: Yeah. I don't want to be just another Hamilton. I want to open a door for a row of Hamiltons and I think this show could do that.
Porter II: A friend of mine described Chicken & Biscuits as the anti-August: Osage County because of this delicious Black joy that we keep talking about. How did you spark that magical quality Zhailon?
Levingston: I didn't consciously think, how do I make joy? It has to be a thing that is already there. If you asked these characters, "Was this a joyful day for you?" They might say yes at the end of the day, but they still had to go through a lot of conflict to get there. So that had me thinking, what is joyful about this? My working theory is that how we make is as important as what we make. I think that what we made in the room in terms of process, spirit and community has spilled out on to the stage. That's the Instagram filter over the story and all of the choices the actors make, no matter what the characters go through. And I think the audience can feel that. They can feel that the bodies on stage are taking care of each other.
Porter II: It's also in the writing.
Levingston: Yes. It's a comedy, so if we're not laughing in the process, then something's not working. In some ways, comedy is the perfect litmus test for all those things that I believe a director should be thinking about when people are working together. Can you actually come together around joy?
Porter II: I saw that in the painful moments as well, which helped to create a more sophisticated payoff once the humor returned. How did you get there?
Lyons: By peeling open the why. I always think about Mo'Nique's performance in the movie Precious. She was such a nasty character, but in that final scene with Mariah Carey, you understood why she was who she was and what she had gone through when she asks, "Who else was going to love me?" When we bring our characters and our community on to the American stage, one might think, I've seen her before on the subway; she's loud. But do you know why? Because if you did, you might have more compassion. I think that's how theatre can not just educate but examine. And that's exciting.
Levingston: It reminds me of this James Baldwin [essay, "Many Thousands Gone"] where he basically says, you can write a monster, but you still have to explain why they are that monster.
Porter II: Right now, there is this awful monster on Broadway called racism that Zhailon has been fighting for years as the director of industry initiatives for Broadway Advocacy Coalition. Given the shift in how the industry is responding to Scott Rudin's alleged behavior, as well as a fall season featuring seven Black plays, what's next in the ongoing fight to make Broadway more inclusive?
Levingston: I'll answer that this way: I see where we are not as a destination, but as an opportunity. Right now, we have the grandest opportunity to continue laying the foundation for what real change actually looks like. That means we can do our work with pleasure and joy, as opposed to rage, sadness, and hopelessness. It isn't the end of the story, but this season is allowing us to see where we are now as a place to move forward from.
Lyons: Yes! As a playwright I've been asked, "Do you think this is just a moment?" And I'm like, "Do y'all ask everybody else that?" I don't know what the future holds, but I know that this moment has the potential to confirm or contradict what people thought they knew to be. That's why I'm focusing on creating joy. Because I've already seen people leaving the Circle in the Square Theatre saying, "Wow. I didn't know I needed that." And that's more important to me than a Tony Award.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Juan Michael Porter II is the staff writer for TheBody.com and a contributor to TDF Stages, Did They Like It?, SF Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, them, Into More and SYFY Wire. He is a National Critics Institute and Poynter Power of Diverse Voices Fellow. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: Douglas Lyons and Zhailon Levingston on the opening night of Chicken & Biscuits on Broadway. Photo by Bruce Glikas.