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Church was Douglas Lyons’s first theatre. His mother was the first female pastor at Thomas Chapel Church of Christ in New Haven, Conn., and he spent every week singing, working, and serving there. Growing up, he would theatricalize the ceremony of the Black church in his mind, finding humor in choir politics and church announcements.
He would not get into theatre proper until high school. Lyons’s father was the school’s basketball coach, and Lyons grew up also playing tennis, baseball, and soccer. But by the time he was a teenager, Lyons was as likely to be singing the national anthem at the basketball games as playing in them. His English teacher, Kristen Grandfield Schimanski, cast him as Tony in West Side Story.
“I played basketball until the end of my senior year,” Lyons said, “and I remember we lost in the quarter finals, and the next day I was in West Side Story rehearsals.”
Bitten by the acting bug, he decided to go to drama school. He saw a poster for the University of Hartford’s Hartt School hanging in a classroom, so he applied there. He received a scholarship to attend, and while at Hartt he was cast in a national tour of Rent. He had been auditioning for the musical since his freshman year of high school, and by his sophomore year of college he landed a gig as a swing.
“Rent taught me so much about swinging, professionalism, energy, business, and what the craft really is when you’re not training,” Lyons said. “Seeing the way that audiences were moved by Rent—I modeled my musical Beau from what I learned doing Rent.”
After graduating in 2009, Lyons moved to New York, and like most performers he auditioned hoping for his big break. By 2011, he’d landed in the ensemble of the original Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon. Four years later, he was in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. By then, he had started writing scripts; he penned his first musical, Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, backstage at Beautiful. A musical for young audiences, it was inspired by the story of the Little Rock Nine, the first Black students to enter Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education. At the same time, he also penned Beau, a bluesy musical about a young man whose estranged grandfather teaches him to play the guitar and changes his life, and Pete(Her)Pan, which tells the classic story of Peter Pan from the point of view of Wendy’s daughter, Jane.
“When I learned that writing could create more opportunities for underserved, unseen people who are not often seen—that part fueled me,” Lyons said.
During that period, he also started writing the comedy Chicken & Biscuits, which begins performances at Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway on Sept. 23. In the play, the Jenkins clan, led by sisters Baneatta and Beverly, come together to bury their beloved father and discover he had some secrets that will forever change their family.
“It is about truth, healing, and the beauty that is Black family,” Lyons said. “There are very nuanced dynamics in a Black family that don’t occur in other cultures that should be celebrated. I grew up with that nuance and personality. It’s a messy masterpiece, but that’s what makes it beautiful.”
Lyons wrote the script, which he considers an ode to Black women, in residence at the Directors Company. Chicken & Biscuits also received developmental readings at the Front Porch Readings Series, Queens Theatre’s 2019 New American Voices Series, and Frank Silvera’s Workshop at the Billie Holiday Theatre. The play had its world premiere under the direction of Zhailon Levingston at Queens Theatre on March 6, 2020—and closed early due to COVID-19. Levingston, who is 27, is the youngest African American director ever to work on Broadway.
Mike & Molly’s Cleo King will play Baneatta Mabry and Ebony Marshall-Oliver will play Beverly Jenkins; both are making their Broadway debuts. Also starring are Tony nom Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess), Drama Desk winner Michael Urie (Buyer and Cellar), and Broadway veteran NaTasha Yvette Williams (The Color Purple).
“I want Chicken & Biscuits to be in every regional theatre that it can be in,” Lyons said. “I want it to become a part of the American theatre canon. It’s a new narrative for Black actors to have regionally, where they get to be in their Sunday best and telling a story.”
In addition to Chicken & Biscuits, Lyons is writing a comedy called Invisible for Queens Theatre. The play is about roommates who smoke a joint that contains something more than marijuana, causing one of them to become invisible and transporting the other to the pre-Civil War South. The play is the second in what Lyons hopes will be a “Black Girl Magic” trilogy.
“I think often our narratives are aligned with oppression and strife and not joy,” Lyons said. “We’re usually not attached to that word, joy.”
In the spirit of spreading joy, he also created the Next Wave Initiative program with the Directors Company, which offers four scholarships named for significant Black artists: the Lorraine Hansberry Writing Scholarship, Spike Lee Directing Scholarship, Hattie McDaniel Acting Scholarship, and Alvin Ailey Dance Scholarship. The scholarships are for Black college students interested in pursuing careers in the arts.
In February, to help raise money for the program, the company hosted a virtual reading of Chicken & Biscuits starring Janet Hubert, best known as Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The event raised enough to fully fund the scholarships. This kind of giving back is what Lyons hopes to spread more of on Broadway and beyond.
“We need a hug, we need to laugh, we need to see that family is messy and complicated,” Lyons said. “Life goes, and once it’s gone you can’t bring it back.”
Kelundra Smith (she/her) is a frequent contributor to this magazine.
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