The Celebration Theatre is in good hands this month with As Much As You Can, 
a contemporary twist on the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner genre, written by 
Paul Oakley Stovall. Under Krissy Vanderwarker’s excellent direction, As Much As 
You Can becomes a funny, heart-warming, and ultimately very moving slice of 
contemporary African American life.

Evy (Tonya Pinkins) is a Chicago-based teacher, an advocate for black pride, 
and a Christian. The latter has led to a schism in her relationship with her gay 
younger brother Jesse (Paul Oakley Stovall), who is about to return home for the 
wedding of youngest sibling Tony (Andrew Kelsey), bringing with him his Swedish 
boyfriend Christian (Wes Ramsey).  Add to the mix half-sister Ronnie (Yassmin 
Alers), the daughter of Evy and Jesse’s father and a white woman, and sassy 
childhood friend and lesbian Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), and the stage is set for family 

Though Evy has long since realized that Jesse is gay, Jesse nonetheless plans to 
introduce Christian to her as a “friend” he’s brought along to “shoot some 
video.” This doesn’t sit well with tell-it-like-it-is Nina, who can’t understand why 
Jesse doesn’t want to celebrate his husband with his family. “Look up the word 
‘husband’ in the dictionary instead of in the Bible,” she tells Jesse, and he’ll 
realize that Christian and he are indeed married in the truest sense of the word.  
Christian too is not particularly thrilled about this subterfuge, telling Jesse that 
“you’re not really out if you leave it for other people to figure out.”  Christian, by 
the way, has a 12-year-old son in Sweden, whom he hopes to invite to the States 
to spend time with his father and Jesse.

Ronnie, “the artist and international beauty,” is the most accepting of Jesse and 
his relationship with Christian, perhaps because she herself has at times felt like 
an outsider with her late father’s “other” family. Tony at first cautions Jesse “not 
to be all over” Christian at the wedding, though what really upsets him is that his 
older brother’s lover is white.  (Not white, insists Jesse.  European.)  It turns out 
that Tony, who could easily pass for white, had Caucasian friends as a child who 
would change towards him once learning that their buddy was African 
American.  When reminded of this, Tony rather quickly changes his tune about 
Christian, though this will almost certainly not be the case with Evy, who still 
believes that Jesse can be “healed” though the power of Jesus.

Lest you worry that this will be one long and depressing look at dysfunctional 
family dynamics a la Eugene O’Neil, rest assured.  As Much As You Can is as 
funny as can be (and at 80 minutes, a swift ride), thanks especially to wise-
cracking Nina, brought to vibrant comedic life by Brooks, a charismatic 
performer ready for her own sitcom.  

Alers is likewise excellent as half-sister Ronnie, especially in a scene where she 
recalls visiting Evy and Jesse’s home for the first time at age 11 or 12, crying and 
yelling as her mother dragged her down the street towards her father’s house.  
As Tony, Kelsey is a real find, cute, hot, and a dynamic young actor to boot.

Playwright Stovall brings dignity and warmth to the role of Jesse, showing us a 
fully realized adult who nonetheless retains his childhood fears about being 
rejected by his family for being different.  He is matched by Ramsey, charming 
and winning as Swedish Christian, a 180 turn from his most best known role, as 
WeHo boy Christian in the iconic gay flick Latter Days.  That there is great 
chemistry between the two 6 foot plus actors is an added plus.

Finally, top billed Tonya Pinkins (the sensational star of Caroline, Or Change) does 
superb work as Evy.  In Pinkins’ capable hands, we see both the love, and the 
intolerance, of this woman for whom family and religion form the core of her life.

Though most definitely an ensemble show, with each actor given the chance to 
shine pretty much equally, Pinkins gets to play the two most powerful scenes.  
The first is an angry confrontation between Jesse and Evy, the former trying in 
vain to reason with his sister, the latter capable only of spouting religious 
rhetoric.  The second is a much quieter scene, opposite Christian, in which Evy 
sees, perhaps for the first time, a gay man as a loving partner and father.

That this scene works is due in no small measure to the beautifully understated 
(and sympathetic) work of Ramsey, without whose contagious warmth it might 
be hard to believe in Evy’s turn-around. In fact, the play’s only drawback is that 
in real life, such changes of heart would certainly take longer than a single 
weekend (and 80 minutes of stage time).  Fortunately, Stovall’s bio reveals that 
As Much As You Can is being developed into a television series, a genre which 
will allow the characters more time to grow and change.

In the meantime, there is the original stage version to enjoy and savor. And if 
you happen to have any intolerant friends, bring them along. As Much As You 
Can may just open their eyes a bit.

Note: The role of Evy will be played by J. Karen Thomas on January 17 and 18.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 4, 2008
Photo: David Elzer

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