Douglas Lyons wants to invite Black audiences for ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ on Broadway
His Broadway debut is part of a historic season that contains eight Black playwrights.
Douglas Lyons is making his Broadway playwriting debut this season with his family comedy Chicken & Biscuits, which opens Sunday. Lyons is a Black writer. And in his 30s. Broadway is not particularly known for taking chances on young Black writers. So how did Lyons get a Broadway debut? By sliding into a Broadway producer’s direct messages.
“I am a pusher,” said Lyons. This isn’t just a character trait, it’s also a practical one for Lyons, who has been acting professionally since he was 19, before transitioning to writing. He’s been in the industry for more than a decade and knows how to survive in entertainment as a Black man.
The first rule: Be persistent. Said Lyons, “I, as a Black man, studying the business of show, people don’t come looking for you. People don’t believe in you until they see dollar signs as a potential behind your name.”
In 2019, Lyons noticed that a producer named Hunter Arnold had started following him on Instagram, where Lyons regularly posted snippets from the plays and musicals he was writing. Arnold is a producer on Broadway with hits such as Hadestown, Dear Evan Hansen and Moulin Rouge!
Lyons wasted no time in trying to get Arnold’s attention. “I sent him a message. I said, ‘Hey, man, I think I have some scripts you might want to read.’ ” Lyons sent two pieces: Beau, a musical, and Chicken & Biscuits. And every five weeks after, Lyons would follow up.
In spring 2020, after Chicken & Biscuits had a truncated off-Broadway run at Queens Theatre (because of the coronavirus pandemic), Lyons finally got a response. Not from someone on Arnold’s team, which would be standard, but from the producer himself.
As Arnold fondly put it, “As soon as I read it, I thought, this kid is incredible.” Arnold confirmed that Lyons did indeed message him on Instagram, and the reason he took the time to read Lyons’ work was because of his persistence: “I was, like, this guy is so tenacious, I actually have to read something of his so I can give him a polite no, or he’s just going to keep chasing me.”
Another rule of show business: All it takes sometimes is for one person to say yes (though notably, the other producers attached to Chicken & Biscuits are Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas). When Arnold read Chicken & Biscuits, he realized it should be on Broadway because it had the capacity to “change the system.” As a heartwarming comedy about a Black family, Chicken & Biscuits has the capacity to bring an audience to Broadway that doesn’t normally go because they don’t see themselves represented. And as one of eight Black playwrights being produced on Broadway this season, a record number, Lyons can help reshape what Broadway looks like and who gets to have their show produced on the biggest stages in America.
Chicken & Biscuits is about the Jenkins family, who come together for the funeral of their patriarch. In the style of all great family dramas, interpersonal conflicts abound and secrets are revealed. And it’s a comedy, which was particularly important to Lyons.
“Broadway and Hollywood love to see Black people pillaged, raped, struggling, oppressed. I’m tired of it,” he said. “That’s not the majority of my experience growing up. We were not that. There was so much laughter and shade and food and love everywhere. And I don’t see that in the American theater. So I’m trying to bring that joy center stage.”
Chicken & Biscuits isn’t autobiographical, but Lyons did take some details from his own life. For one, the play is about a family living in New Haven, Connecticut, where the father is a pastor. Lyons also grew up in New Haven and in the Black church. His mother was a pastor.
“I was in my mother’s belly in the church,” said Lyons. “I was singing at 3 years old in the church. It is my foundation in my background and my roots. It is how I learned music. My first bit of artistic expression came from the choir.”
Lyons was 19 and attending the Hartt School at the University of Hartford for musical theater when he was cast in the national tour of Rent. He made his Broadway debut as an actor in 2011 in The Book of Mormon.
He would later do the national tour of that show. And yes, Lyons is aware that The Book of Mormon is now considered problematic because of its portrayal of Ugandans (Lyons was a swing and an understudy for the general, a Ugandan warlord). The creators of the show have said they intend to adjust the script to address cast member concerns. “Doing the show, I didn’t think it was racist, personally,” Lyons said. “I’m interested to see what changes they’ve made, and hopefully they become very aware of the more insensitive parts of it.”
After The Book of Mormon, Lyons performed in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway, as well as on the national tour of Dreamgirls. In short, Lyons has had a rare career where he’s always worked. And it’s not just because of luck and talent, it’s also because of his tenacity.
Lyons is charming, filled with energy and anecdotes. One of his mentors told him, “ ‘Douglas, do you know that you’re not like other children? People don’t just go out and demand and get things. You’re very special,’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “It’s my tool. I feel like I had to. If I didn’t, I would not have a career.”
Writing came about because of, as Lyons put it frankly, “boredom.” He wanted something to do while he was backstage in between scenes. It was also because his father taught him about money and the importance of “passive income,” he said. “What are the ways to make things work for you? And the business part of show is that writers in this business, if you get one hit, you could potentially be set for life.”
And Lyons is well on his way. He’s written a musical called Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, which was inspired by Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine. He wrote it backstage at Beautiful and it has since been produced at children’s theaters around the country.
Now with his Broadway playwriting debut with Chicken & Biscuits, Lyons has his sights set on something bigger. It’s not about money, it’s about how many people he can affect with his work.
During a recent performance of Chicken & Biscuits, the preshow announcement for the audience to turn off their cellphones also included the following directive: “Shout. Say hallelujah. Say amen.” And the audience of Black people and white people followed those directions. Raucous laughter abounded, one woman sat up in shock during a pivotal moment in the play, others threw up their hands.
When he started writing the play, he never dreamed it would go to Broadway. He didn’t even believe it until the play began performances. When it comes to writing, Lyons doesn’t outline. As an actor, he lets the characters speak through the page and tell him where they want to go. He described writing Chicken & Biscuits as an act of healing.
The play is centered on a funeral, but there are multiple intersecting storylines. There are the two daughters, of very different temperaments, responding to their father’s death. There’s the granddaughter going through a failed engagement. And there’s the grandson, who is gay, bringing his white boyfriend home for the first time. That last character was closer to home to Lyons, who is gay.
And while he looks at the church with love, it’s a complicated relationship. “There are so many queer people in the Black church. And they’re made to feel like they are a sin, though they contribute so much talent and gift to music, and the running of the sanctuary in general,” said Lyons. “And so I’m hoping this is a conversation starter for our community to dampen and disturb and unravel this homophobic spirit, as I would call it.”
He also hopes that for Black audiences in particular, the play encourages them to have frank conversations with their own families. Due to a long history of medical discrimination and abuse, many Black people are suspicious of therapy. In Lyons’ estimation, the Black church has taken on the role of therapist in the community, where, “I just went to church and I shouted, I cried and I let it all out. Why do I need therapy?”
But with Chicken & Biscuits, while the characters do go to church and forcefully express their emotions in the pew, they also take time to talk with one another and work through their trauma. It’s not all comedy. The play is about Black joy, but it is also about Black healing and Black release.
“This play investigates what it is to put on the church hat, walk in and pretend everything’s OK, but be crying at home,” Lyons said. “I think culturally, we are not broken open, because we’re not allowed to. And so we need to perform for the world that everything’s OK. And I think this play allows Black people to say, sometimes we are not OK, and we are broken, and we have gone through some nasty things. But if we talk about them, we can heal through them and shine brighter on the outside.”
Another rule of show business: It takes some talent and a fair bit of luck. That is how Chicken & Biscuits got to Broadway, through luck, or perhaps an act of God. Last year, the pandemic shut down the play during its off-Broadway run (as well as theaters nationwide).
Then a year later, New York City allowed Broadway theaters to reopen. But many shows were unable to return, leaving a number of theaters empty. And the shows that have filled those empty theaters have been penned by Black playwrights. This fall, eight Black playwrights are getting their work produced on Broadway, a record considering that the average theater season, on average, only features two works by Black creators (and one of them is often August Wilson).
To Arnold, it’s a testament to those Black artists and their producers, who were willing to risk millions of dollars and bring Broadway back during a fraught time when many are still scared to go to the theater because of the coronavirus. “When you’re looking at who was willing to take the risk to bring Broadway back first, it wasn’t producers of regular material, and that says something,” Arnold said. “We owe them the same level of support that their risk-taking deserves.”
During a time when Broadway is reckoning with its own history of exclusion and lack of diversity, these creators are imagining a new kind of Broadway. And if these artists and their teams are successful, Broadway will start to look different, onstage as well as in the audience. That is why it was important for Chicken & Biscuits to have that preshow announcement, encouraging audiences to be as loud as they want.
And that is why Chicken & Biscuits is working with a marketing company, REALEMN, that specializes in promoting to multicultural audiences. “Black people will show up, they just have to know they are reflected,” Lyons said. “It’s not that we don’t have money, because with Color Purple, church buses were coming over and over again. But that’s because they felt like they were invited.”
Lyons is not as worried about box office revenue as he is about the audience. “Does this play bring in a whole new audience to Broadway? If we do that, we’ve won,” he said, repeating for emphasis: “We’ve won.”
Lately, Lyons has been thinking a lot about legacy. He started writing because of boredom. Then he realized that through writing, he could make a wider direct impact. First, he could create jobs: Chicken & Biscuits features 25 Broadway debuts among the cast and creative team, including director Zhailon Levingston, who at 27 is the youngest Black director to work on Broadway.
With The Directors Company, Lyons helped create the Next Wave Initiative, which offers scholarships to Black college students who want to pursue a career in theater. “I just want to crack open a door, so that there are more young Black playwrights who feel like their stories belong in this [Broadway] space,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lyons’ career is continuing on its upward trajectory. Arnold says he’s determined to bring Lyons’ musical Beau, about a young singer-songwriter reconnecting with his estranged grandfather, to Broadway. The show has already been filmed and the team is considering shopping it to streamers.
As for the future, Lyons is superstitious and isn’t offering too many details yet. But now that he’s writing full time, Chicken & Biscuits is reminding him of why he started writing in the first place. While to him, theater acting only existed in the moment from his own body, writing has allowed him to create work that can take on its own life. Because in theater, if a story is good, it will be retold over and over again.
“August Wilson is no longer here and his work will be performed,” said Lyons. “When I am long gone, these characters will employ [people] and live on and tell the story. That’s magical to me.”