There have to be at least a dozen waysto savor Robert O’Hara’s deliciously subversive Bootycandy, but I’ve got limited space, so I’ll go with the one that struck me last—after the giggles and guffaws, after the affection for characters whose moms named them Genitalia and Intifada, and after the admiration for actors who mix Michael Jackson moves with verbal precision to render an evening of satirical sex ed simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s impressive work all around.
What struck me last, though (and should really have struck me first, since I remember admiring O’Hara’s genre-bending Antebellum for the same reason) is the author’s passion for deconstruction. He simply cannot stop analyzing what he’s doing even as he’s doing it, a fact that pays dividends in Bootycandy that are nearly as provocative as his insights about growing up gay and black, and about the mutability of desire.
Take the playlet—there are 10 in all, related by theme and occasionally by character—with which O’Hara ends the first act. It’s called “Conference,” and it brings together four perplexed playwrights and a moderator so clueless—almost channeling The Office’s Michael Scott—that we might as well just call him Critic.
The playwrights haven’t the faintest idea why they’re here, and their confusion only grows as Critic leads them through a description of their plays—the ones we’ve just been watching—about a little boy whose mother calls his penis “bootycandy,” a preacher given to seriously “flaming” fire and brimstone, a gal-pal phone conversation about pussy, a seriously undermedicated man trying to talk his way out of a mugging, and an assignation between a gay man and his gay-curious brother-in-law.
For each play, the moderator has an interpretation—about race, sexuality, or language—that is not remotely what its playwright intended. His reads, in fact, so twist meaning that when he finally asks what we’re meant to take away from a work, one playwright snaps that the audience should “choke.”
The moderator ties himself in knots trying to interpret this notion (“Are we talking auto-erotic asphyxiation?”) and then begins to gasp for air as the playwrights perform a sort of voodoo Heimlich. Then, because everyone clearly needs a short breather, O’Hara, who is also Bootycandy’s director, starts deconstructing notions of intermission.
What’s remarkable about this sequence isn’t the fun it has with form, or even the fun it makes of critics, but the fact that the audience is being forced to examine its own reactions to O’Hara’s work—some of which likely parallel the moderator’s—in real time. Who needs a talk-back at show’s end when the playwright can upend your assumptions even as you’re forming them? He does more of this as Act 2 heads into differently eccentric territory—moral triage in a fast-food joint, an uncommitment ceremony—before arriving at a moment that so shatters the evening that the stagehands have to come on stage to perform a reboot.
Performances are generally terrific, with Lance Coadie Williams cornering the flamboyance market, Sean Meehan playing the evening’s most seriously troubled souls, Jessica Frances Dukes and Laiona Michelle doing a pretty uproarious Mutt and Jeff act, and all of them circling Phillip James Brannon’s incisively playful Sutter, who seems a stand-in for the author. Perhaps understandably, the most telling sketches tend to be the least funny. I suspect I won’t be alone in replaying in my head the barroom conversations between brothers-in-law that go from comic to wrenching by delicate stages, each character desperately seeking contact, and just as desperately shrinking from touch.