Review: Demons Haunt a Divided Family in Mourning

Keelay Gipson’s surreal play tells the story of demonic possession following the death of a patriarch.

Paige Gilbert, Christopher B. Portley, Gayle Samuels, Donell James Foreman, and Ashton Muñiz star in demons., written and directed by Keelay Gipson, for Bushwick Starr at the Connelly Theater.
(© Maria Baranova)

Something about being in one’s childhood home, surrounded by family, prompts a regression — a return to old roles and power dynamics that have little relationship to one’s adult station and income. Is this force of habit, or is something more sinister afoot?

Playwright-director Keelay Gipson says, yes, and… in his delightfully strange new play demons., now making its off-Broadway debut with the Bushwick Starr (in association with JAG Productions and Oye Group) at the Connelly Theater. An imaginative exploration of grief, generational trauma, and demonic possession, it has something for everyone who has been touched by death — which is just about everyone.

Daddy is dead, to begin with. The opening scene depicts members of his family standing around his grave as he is laid to rest. The action of the play takes place in the days following, as Mama (Gayle Samuels), her daughter Sissy (a fiery Paige Gilbert), her son Bubba (Donell James Foreman), and their significant others (Christopher B. Portley and Ashton Muñiz, respectively) crowd into the old house for some family mourning.

But there’s an unseen guest: a giant furry pointy-tailed demon named Danily (Joseph Lymous). This is his first assignment, and he got the job through a little netherworld nepotism. Dad is anxious that his first project be a success — a little too anxious. We quickly learn that even demons have contentious father-son relationships.

Gayle Samuels plays Mama, and Donell James Foreman plays Bubba in demons., written and directed by Keelay Gipson, for Bushwick Starr at the Connelly Theater.
(© Maria Baranova)

Gipson cleverly lays out his scenes through the stages of grief as we learn about Daddy’s infidelity, Bubba’s refusal to ever formally come out to him (his husband is billed in the program as Bubba’s “Friend”), and the father-daughter, mother-son alliances that constituted the balance of power in this nuclear family. Mama swirls a tumbler of whiskey and nonchalantly asks, “So, where do you think your daddy is?” It’s a loaded question that, in her mind, only has two acceptable answers.

Elements of the paranormal seep into this family drama, some of which arrive through Mike Hayhurst’s well-curated video design (clips of exorcisms and “God Warrior” Marguerite Perrin play during the preshow, placing us on the porous border between horror and camp). The sunken living room with lily print sectional sofa looks like a waiting room in purgatory, its dark bare walls inviting us to fill in the details of a comfortable middle-class home (set by Yu Shibagaki). Minjoo Kim’s lighting reveals and conceals some of the secrets hiding in plain sight, subtly bleeding fantasy into reality until they are indistinguishable.

And then there’s the puppet. Cedwan Hooks’s design for Danily is simultaneously ridiculous and adorable, something you might see in a pharmaceutical ad. Demons got you down? Ask your doctor about Exorcipro. There’s nothing scary about him in the slightest, and as played by Lymous, we get the sense of a demon who is not entirely comfortable in his own fur (admirably restrained puppet direction by Jon Riddleberger). Gipson leaves a lot of unanswered question around Danily and his dad, and Lymous makes us want to know more. Danily should have a series on Netflix.

Ashton Muñiz, Donell James Foreman, Paige Gilbert, and Christopher B. Portley appear in demons., written and directed by Keelay Gipson, for Bushwick Starr at the Connelly Theater.
(© Maria Baranova)

The seriousness with which the other actors take their performances is part of what makes the presence of a giant orange puppet so effective, especially after he possesses Bubba, taking his place in the stage action. Samuels, in particular, delivers a forceful, slightly terrifying performance as Mama. She practically weeps as she caresses his shaggy orange beard and says, “I’ve never seen you this way.” It’s as if August Wilson wrote an episode of Sesame Street.

Foreman gives a compellingly furtive performance as Bubba, his wide eyes betraying a character afraid of making any missteps. He delivers an elegiac monologue halfway through the play, when his soul has been transported to another plane. It starts completely in the dark, with his figure slowly emerging (gorgeous lighting by Kim). His voice echoes, and we feel the enormity of the void in our chests (sound by Christopher Darbassie). Foreman makes us feel Bubba’s sense of loss as he contemplates a life that is zooming toward inevitable death.

Simultaneously relatable and fantastical, demons. is a beautiful demonstration of theater’s ability to tell family stories that escape the confines of the living room — even if it appears as though we’ve never left at all.

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Closed: June 3, 2023