In the first of Robert O’Hara’s ten scenes about growing up black and gay, a young child named Sutter asks his mother some uncomfortable questions, including why she and his grandmother call his penis booty candy.
“I don’t know,” his mother answers. “I guess because it’s the candy to the booty!”
“So can I lick it?”
This is bawdy, this is funny, but it’s also a little poignant. Those are the three main ingredients of “Bootycandy” as a whole – though not always at the same time. The show that O’Hara has written and directed, which has opened at Playwrights Horizons, is a collection of short plays, comedy sketches, and meta fiddling around that may at first glance seem barely connected, but are worth a second glance.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged, and read the caption.
Phillip James Brannon portrays Sutter, a clear stand-in for the playwright, and the only one of the five protean cast members who portrays only one character. Sutter appears in half the scenes, showing him at various stages of his life, though not necessarily in chronological order. In “Drinks and Desire,” he meets Roy (Jesse Pennington), another young man, in a series of bars, where they talk explicitly about having sex, with dialogue that makes it feel like an absurdist drama:
Roy: I know I…I would like to try
Sutter. Try what?
Roy. I don’t know…Something
In “Happy Meal,” the teenage Sutter is at home with his mother, stepfather and sister when he tells them that a man has been following him home from the library.
“You need to take up some sports,” his stepfather says, not looking up from his paper.
“This school year, no musicals,” his mother says.
What follows from their mouths is a litany of things he should start or stop doing, which (left unsaid) would make him more masculine — hilarious and surreal, but also in some ways spot-on.
In the last scene, “iPhone,” the adult Sutter visits his Granny in a nursing home, and uses his iPhone to revisit scenes he witnessed as a child, which he recorded at the time, and which are re-created before our eyes, subtly tying together some of the plot threads from the previous scenes.
In-between the domestic scenes with Sutter are broad skits. Lance Coadie Williams is fabulous as preacher with a secret (“Dreamin in Church”) — one of five characters Williams plays, including the stepfather and Granny. Jessica Frances Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas play three women having a telephone conversation that is entirely about one of them wanting to name her newborn “Genitalia.” Dukes and Thomas portray two lesbians officially breaking up in a “non-commitment ceremony” (“…to no longer have and no longer hold, from this day forward, for my better and your worse…”) If these sketches are over the top and (like most of the scenes) go on just a wee bit too long, they are redeemed by the virtuosic clowning of the cast, helped along by the costume and set design by Clint Ramos.
The remaining scenes are not as easily categorized. Both “Mug” and “The Last Gay Play” are deliberately ugly, and more intriguing because of it.
Then there is “Conference,” a biting satire with a panel discussion between a clueless white moderator and four black writers (including Sutter), each of whom has written one of the plays we’ve just seen.
“Each of you seem to have a strong facility with language and structure as well as grappling with some rather provocative issues and risky situations,” the moderator says. “I’m wondering what you are hoping the audience comes away with after seeing your work?”
Sutter: I think the audience should choke.
Moderator: To death?
Writer: I don’t want them to digest it easily
....Sutter: The work should be work
Some audience members might well choke on “Bootycandy,” but it would most likely be from laughter.
at Playwrights Horizons
Written and directed by Robert O’Hara
Scenic and costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Japhy Weideman
Cast: Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jesse Pennington, Benja Kay Thomas, Lance Coadie Williams
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $75 to $95
Bootycandy is scheduled to run through October 12.
Suggested for theatergoers 17 and older.
Update: The play has been extended to October 19, 2014