House of Chavis is the World Premiere of Robert Macke’s play about a family in flames. We’re talking Sherman torching Atlanta. We piece together the story of the character who looms most large and never makes an appearance, Vincent/Anne, the gay son of Vernon (Yosvany Reyes), a very hard man who has a very hard time dealing with the death of his expectations for his son.
After a devastating incident in the family following the untimely illness and death of Vernon’s wife Shirley, Vincent’s mother, the survivors’ falling out is the stuff of family legend. And we learn it is more American Gothic than anyone may have thought, with a heapin’ helpin’ of toxic masculinity.
We meet the Chavis Family, and extensions, as Vincent is reaching the finals of a drag competition in which he has become a surprise finalist. Michelle (Tsebiyah Mishael Derry), one of the show’s producers, now needs to gather the backstory of this surprise for a media-hungry public — and the more scandalous, the better. Paulanne is the member of the family who is the nexus of all information. Every family has that person whom everyone tells their everything to, and that’s Paulanne, the all-heart, tell-me-I’m-listening philosopher and advice doyenne, the historian, and keeper of the keys. She knows where ALL the skeletons lie. When we first meet Paulanne, Gretchen Reinhagen creates a good soul whom you feel like you know, and you begin to realize that she’s taking in as much information as she’s giving. Ms. Reinhagen’s Paulanne is caring and disarming, analyzing how to say what each person needs to hear as she gets her quid pro quo. Her conversation with Michelle begins to give us a portrait of Vincent, Vernon and the family dynamic in Bob Ross fashion — it’s tidbits here and there that combine to give us a very big picture indeed.
Each of the actors shine, and under TOSOS Artistic Director Mark Finley’s direction, we see both a faceted gem as well as the blooming of a flower. That flower has a bit of rot inside, as we see the uncoiling of self-loathing in the aftermath of violence and that love may still survive even after heinous acts of lashing out. Paulanne could be a caricature in the wrong hands, and Ms. Reinhagen gives us her full humanity along with a key personality. Ms. Derry’s Michelle works hard to give a dose of reality along with gathering material for a reality show, and ends up more deeply involved than she suspects. Mr. Reyes’ Vernon is a man on the verge — he discovers his fears are not paper tigers, and that he has a long way to go for redemption. TJ Greenway’s sets are lavishly spare, abundant in detail, and perfectly done, and Ben Philipp’s costumes are spot on. Paulanne wears a turtle necklace in the first act, and given that turtles are all about longevity, it tells us a lot about Paulanne and who she is to the family. Alex Denevers’ light design and Morry Campbell’s sound design are a one-two punch and you will leave the theatre with swirling thoughts of the complexity of the world, satisfied and not all at the same time.
TOSOS, The Other Side of Silence, is a historic LQBTQIA+ theatre company dedicated to elevating queer voices. The Siggy Theatre at The Flea is fully air conditioned. Come out and support your family.
House of Chavis | TOSOS | Playing through August 6 | The Flea, 20 Thomas Street in Manhattan | Tickets are $35 via tososnyc.org