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With ‘Chicken & Biscuits,’ Front Porch has the stage all to itself

Director Lyndsay Allyn Cox (right) leads a rehearsal for Front Porch Arts Collective's "Chicken & Biscuits" at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston on Nov. 29, 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

The Front Porch Arts Collective has been readying for this moment for a long time.

Since its inception in 2016, the Black theater company, which aims to further racial equity in Boston, has been working to build its presence through the staging of multiple readings and plays, including 2019′s “black odyssey boston” and this year’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Until now, that work was made possible with the help of co-producing partners, including The Nora, the Hangar Theater, Greater Boston Stage Company, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and Underground Railway Theater.

That changes this week with the company’s first solo staging, a production of Douglas Lyons’s “Chicken & Biscuits” at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre.

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In this tale, religion, secrets, and more roil together, testing familial bonds. Lyons’s comedy — which centers on the Jenkins clan — made its Broadway debut at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2021, but its run ended early due to COVID.

The show’s ensemble includes actor and playwright Jacqui Parker, who directed “The Light” for the Lyric Stage Company, Thomika Marie Bridwell from SpeakEasy’s 2021 production of “BLKS,” and Robert Cornelius, who recently starred as Bynum Walker in the Huntington’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

In the play, Parker portrays the ultra-composed Baneatta, older sister of Beverly (Bridwell), whose life centers on her husband, children, and church. But when the Jenkins patriarch dies, a secret that could tear the clan apart comes to light. Secrecy can be costly, and Parker’s Baneatta has been holding on to this juicy nugget for much longer than she should have. As a result, her relationship with her sister — whose crackling personality packs a punch — is strained. But Baneatta’s burden weighs on her.

Thomika Birdwell (right) embraces Lorraine Kanyike during a rehearsal for Front Porch Arts Collective's "Chicken & Biscuits." Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

“I think it puts a wedge between her and her sister because you can’t be extremely close with a sibling or a friend or a lover if you are holding on to a secret. Some parts of the relationship will be ringing false,” Parker says.

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But the family story is about more than just what’s left unsaid over the years, and director Lyndsay Allyn Cox believes the play’s themes of forgiveness and acceptance reign supreme.

It’s no coincidence that the theater company’s first independent production is a family-centered play. Its website describes Front Porch — led by co-producing artistic directors Dawn M. Simmons and Maurice Emmanuel Parent — as a “communal gathering place.”

Parent explains that one of its goals is to create a “family around the arts.” On a personal level, that might mean engaging people — directors, actors, designers, and others — as they come to be part of the artistic process. On a more macro level, it might entail building partnerships and showing up for critical conversations about issues affecting the community, he says.

At one of the play’s recent rehearsals in Deane Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion, that notion of family was on full display. The room, with tape on the floor pointing to critical placements and outlining the stage area, radiated warmth and camaraderie as the cast acted out a dinner scene. There was singing and laughter at the table and during breaks.

Cox, the director, watched intently, took notes on her laptop, and, when necessary, interjected kind but firm directives. Cox was concerned about the audience looking at the backs of the actors in the scene. The actors, eager to help, offered up suggestions. The collaborative process Cox stewarded that evening aligns with Front Porch’s ideals.

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A Black theater producing a story written by a Black playwright with a primarily Black cast in a city that’s struggled with its racist reputation, the complexity of which was highlighted in the Globe’s 2017 Spotlight series, is a significant new development in the city’s arts scene.

“It’s a big deal what they’re doing because they’re producing it. They’re doing it all,” says Parker. “They’re not counting on someone else to push them through. It’s a lot of work and a lot of soul and spirit.”

Cox says there’s something “inherently easy about” working on a show with a predominantly Black cast and staged by a Black theater company. “I think there’s just common language that everybody comes into the room with automatically.”

That language Cox talks of is a shared culture (even if just in part). Front Porch chose the show because it wanted to work on something that centered on or left people feeling connected to Black joy.

Although Parent hasn’t spent much time in the rehearsal room, whenever he is there, “just being with people who get it, who are saying words they know intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally and coming from a place of agency and saying it is such an embodied way . . . that transcends art,” he says. “It transcends storytelling; it is connecting soul to soul, heart to heart, and ancestor to ancestor.”

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Working on a show about “Black family, Black culture, Black legacy, you just hear the echoes of the ancestors when [the words] come out of these bodies in this space. It’s almost indescribable how great it is,” Parent says.

Still, he adds, “everybody’s welcome to the table even if you’re not part of that diaspora. There’s something about making a space in this arts-and-culture-rich sector of the nation that says stories of the diaspora matter; they are important, people who are part of that diaspora need to be telling those stories, setting the standards, making the rooms, and connecting with those communities and inviting our allies to the table.”

Director Lyndsay Allyn Cox (right) directs a rehearsal at the Calderwood Pavilion for Front Porch Arts Collective's "Chicken & Biscuits."Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Front Porch is not the only Black theater company in Boston or the United States. There’s the African Grove Theater — which is believed to be the nation’s first — in New York, New African Theater in Boston, Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago, and Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., to name a few. However, Parent is eager to add to their body of work.

“This community means a lot. To be able to do the work to create this space and empower people like Lyndsay [Allyn Cox] to lead the ship to shore and to be able to carve out that space in the city, it’s magical,” Parent says.

Putting on a show takes a lot of work and there’s much to consider. Marketing, donor outreach, and other pertinent aspects of staging a play were handled by co-producing partners in the past. This time the Front Porch team worked on these details. They also got a chance to think about their aesthetic, from programs to soon-to-come merch.

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And even though Front Porch is producing “Chicken & Biscuits” on its own, Boston’s creative community has stepped up to support the theater company in numerous ways. The organization has always aimed to be an autonomous producing entity, and the financial support of the Barr, Boston, and First Republic foundations, family foundations, and individual donors has helped them get this far, Parent says. Previous co-producing partners have offered advice and bought blocks of tickets. The Huntington, where Front Porch has established a residency, is helping with housing for out-of-town crew members. People have volunteered to be ushers, help spread the word, and more.

Parent recognizes the weight and responsibility of Front Porch’s idea to create “a company to serve the community, to serve our ecosystem.”

The Front Porch team wants to make sure they’re “doing things sustainably because we certainly want the company to stay around for a long time,” he says.

Luckily, they’re not alone. And Parent knows it.

“It takes a village,” he says. “It’s a we thing.”

CHICKEN & BISCUITS

Presented by the Front Porch Arts Collective. At Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St. Dec. 9-Jan 8. $25. www.frontporcharts.org