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Mankind Review. In Robert O’Hara’s play, women are extinct, but feminism becomes a religion.

 

In a program note for “Mankind,” a fun comedy that turns berserk about a future world in which women are extinct, its playwright and director Robert O’Hara explains that he found inspiration in “Day of Absence,” a 1965 play by Douglas Turner Ward. In that play, black people have disappeared, forcing white people to manage on their own — for example, taking care of their own children. In “Mankind,” men must live with the rules they imposed “on the female body,” when there are no longer such bodies. O’Hara writes that his play is like Ward’s — “a satiric cautionary tale. Lit with gasoline. And tossed into the Age of Trump.”

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Barbecue Review: Robert O’Hara Ribs His Characters, Stews About Race, Class and Fame

BarbecueaBarbecuebBarbara’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…

Act II.

(I promised.)

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.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Barbecue

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.

Bootycandy Review: Growing Up Black and Gay and Rated R

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: Choke?

Sutter: Asphyxiate.

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.

 

Bootycandy

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