Barbara’s pill-popping, chain-smoking, whiskey-swilling, crack-addicted and foul-mouthed family has gathered in a public park with a surprise for her – they are planning an intervention – in “Barbecue,” an outrageous, sly comedy by Robert O’Hara, who has some surprises of his own.
Some of O’Hara’s surprises turn this funny but uncomfortable story of a family who would not win any NAACP Image Awards into something clever and thoughtful. I’m reluctant to spoil the surprises, yet, without doing so, it’s difficult to explain how “Barbecue” winds up much more satisfying theater than it initially promises to be.
So I’ll compromise, letting you in on the big surprise of Act I, and holding back on the big surprise of Act II.
At the beginning of the play, Barbara’s brother James T. (Paul Nieback) and three sisters Lillie Anne, Marie and Adlean (Becky Ann Baker, Arden Myrin and Constance Shulman) are planning a fake barbecue party at her favorite park as a way to lure Barbara into a confrontation over her drug and alcohol use, and her generally reckless behavior, and convince her to go to Rehab. They are not expecting things to go smoothly; James has brought a Taser just in case. “The minute Zippity Boom get out of hand this will calm her back down,” James says, using the family’s less-than-endearing nickname for their sister Barbara.
“She gat a bad heart,” Lillie Anne says.
“Then she better stay calm,” James replies.
The dark joke here, as we eventually learn, is that each sibling is just as much in need of an intervention – Marie carries around a bottle of Jack Daniels and has crack in her purse. The entire family is a mess. They are trailer trash (which is very close to what Lilli Anne calls James) – or, more bluntly, white trash.
Then there is a blackout, and when the lights return, so do the four siblings, except now instead of played by four white actors, they are portrayed by four black actors – Marc Damon Johnson is James T., Kim Wayans is Lillie Anne, Heather Alicia Simms is Marie, and Sonja Kay Thomas is Adjean.
Same park, same situation, same character, same personalities (equally terrific comedic acting) – but black instead of white.
If not a stroke of genius, the changeover is something close to a strike of lightning – like a psychological experiment to test our unconscious biases and inhibitions. Would we have thought differently about this trash-talking, trash-taking family if they had started out black rather than white?
From then on, the black family alternates in the park with the white family, as the barbecue/intervention progresses, until…
Let’s just say in the second act that O’Hara deftly and mischievously co-opts any accusations that his characters in the first act are mean-spirited stereotypes; and that one of the Barbaras (fabulous Tamberla Perry and wonderful Samantha Soule) is not what we’re expecting — there is a line of dialogue flagrantly lifted from Whitney Houston when she was not at her best.
“Barbecue” manages to roast its raw characters, while at the same time basting the audience in juicy observations about race and class, truth and “authenticity,” and modern addictions, including to fame.
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At the Public Theater
Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Kent Gash
Scenic Design Clint Ramos
Costume Design Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design Jason Lyons
Original Music & Sound Design Lindsay Jones
Hair and Wig Design Leah Loukas
Cast: Becky Ann Baker, Marc Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry,Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas, and Kim Wayans.
Running time: two hours including one intermission
Tickets: “Non-member seats start at $50”
Barbecue is scheduled to run through November 1, 2015.