‘Livin’ Fat’ at Jubilee Theatre is large on laughs

Carlos Brumfield and Yolanda Davis in ‘Livin’ Fat’
Carlos Brumfield and Yolanda Davis in ‘Livin’ Fat’

Easy money isn’t always easy to deal with.

That lesson is learned by the Carter family in Livin’ Fat, the comedy that opened at Jubilee Theatre last week. When one of the family members, David (Carlos Brumfield), unexpectedly finds himself with a bundle of bucks, it leads to all sorts of discord, debate and decision-making (in addition to plenty of laughs) for a black family trying to make ends meet in difficult times.

This 1974 play by Judi Ann Mason is set in motion by an odd turn of events. David, a college grad who can do no better than finding a janitor’s job at a bank, is at his workplace during a robbery. In the confusion of the crime, a substantial chunk of cash dropped by the robbers winds up in David’s possession.

So what is he to do? Returning the money might be the right choice, but what about his impoverished family members who have worked so hard for so long, with so little to show for it?

When the rest of the family finds out about David’s windfall, it sets off a maelstrom of conflict. David’s Bible-thumping mother, Biddie (Kyndal Robertson), and his hard-working father, Calvin (Jerrold Trice), appear to lean toward doing the right thing.

But David’s grandmother, Big Mama (Yolanda Davis), is enjoying her new television and sees the money as a gift from God. Little sister Candy (Sydney Hewitt) is just concerned about keeping her new stereo system. And David’s best bud, Boo (Djore Nance), is mostly along for the ride, but he places himself decidedly in the “keep the money” camp all the same.

Ultimately it is decided that Calvin, as the head of the household, must make the choice. He turns to the Almighty for guidance while trying to ignore the pleadings of the factions in the family.

One of the strengths of this comedy is its array of engaging characters. Under the direction of Dennis Raveneau, the actors take full advantage of that asset. Brumfield, Trice and Robertson provide a solid core and move the story along. Davis has the most comically written role, and she lands plenty of highly effective shots. Nance’s part is a bit ridiculous, but, after seeming annoying at first blush, his clowning grows on you and regularly moves the needle on the laugh meter.

But the best performance of all may come from Hewitt. She does not have as many laugh lines as the rest of the cast, but the young actress does a great job with her role. Even when she is just a bystander in a scene, you still see that spark that shows she is completely absorbed and totally committed to her job.

The show also has a nice look to it, thanks to a detailed set design by Brynn Bristol. Costume designer Barbara O’Donoghue has plenty of fun with the outlandish period outfits worn by Boo.

There are a few shortcomings. Mason wrote this play when she was only 19 years old. She would later go on to write for several successful TV sitcoms (Good Times and A Different World) and films (Sister Act 2). But this is, obviously, the work of a budding writer learning her craft. It is amazingly good for a writer of her age, but it does have some rough edges.

The enjoyment of this comedy requires that you not think about things too much. Because of the time setting, the references to the enormous gulf between the races are painful to hear. Certain legal and moral issues have to be overlooked (David is not guilty of robbery, but he is guilty of theft). And the N-word is used in a few places. Even though it is invoked only for comic effect (and the audience at the opening-night performance seen for his review roared at its every use), that term is always a bit unnerving to hear.

In terms of the production itself, the performances and overall pacing are quite good. But some of the blocking employed by Raveneau lacks imagination.

So this is a particularly slight, light comedy. For those reasons, many will find it to be a delightful start for the summer theater season.

Livin’ Fat