Outside the Black Box: A Chat With Robert O’Hara
Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy is rich in '80s-specific references—Jheri curls, the moonwalk, Superman underpants—but it's mostly about examining associations and stereotypes, not conjuring them. The play takes on sex, sexuality, and the challenges of growing up black and gay, and audiences have responded with their wallets. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has extended its run of the play to July 3.
O’Hara, whose Antebellum won a Helen Hayes Award in 2010 for best new play, spoke with the Arts Desk about writing Bootycandy, growing up in Cincinnati, and what it means to be a playwright who attracts multiple labels while remaining true to his creative vision.
Washington City Paper: The term Bootycandy comes from your childhood. Your mom used that term?
Robert O’Hara: My mom was the one usually involved with the washing of us [children]. I don’t ever remember asking my mother what it meant because as a child I just knew what it meant. It refers to the penis. [Imitating mother’s voice] Did you remember to push your stuff back and wash your bootycandy?
WCP: You grew up in Cincinnati. I read that you didn’t like growing up there. How does your relationship to your hometown informs your work?
RO: My relationship was about getting out of Cincinnati. I think a lot of people have that relationship, especially homosexuals. This is a place where everyone knows everything about who I am, and I'm not who they think I am, and I don't wanna be who they want me to be and so I couldn’t wait to go to college. I always think it’s interesting that it’s a city where they consider themselves in the north, but you can sit at the river’s edge and see the south. So a slave would cross the river and they’d be in a free state but of course if they turned around they would see where they came from... and that was slavery. So it creates a certain schizophrenia in people. It has a very interesting sensibility. It’s basically a southern city in my eyes.
WCP: Your words: “Every play is an experiment.” What was your experiment with Bootycandy?
RO: Well my point from the beginning was to see if I could make a story in a nonlinear way, that has an elliptical setting. And have you sort of get an experience rather than a sort of straightforward play. So I could have just started from the beginning then moved to the next logical scene but I decided not to...it was an experiment in can I take an idea and make an experience of it rather than a typical narrative.
WCP: I’m glad that you brought up form, because when I saw your play—the fragments, the playlets—I immediately thought of George C. Wolfe’s Colored Museum. Were you influenced by that play at all?
RO: He is a major mentor in my life. I’ve worked with him for several years when I was in graduate school. He gave me my start. We have a very strong relationship. He was a major mentor. And I directed Colored Museum in college. One of the first plays I ever directed in college. So it stuck with me.
WCP: This may sound glib but I’m reading what others are saying about Bootcandy: that it is about sex. But it’s also about coming of age and navigating stereotypes. For you, what is this project of Bootycandy?
RO: It’s about how we speak about who we are sexually, emotionally in a sort of post-racial situation. What do we talk about after we acknowledge what race we are. And after we’ve dealt with that, then what? So it’s a conversation. And it’s my take on certain situations, such as marriage, lovers, family, genitalia. Really it’s a conversation with the way I’ve experienced the world. It’s not just one thing. Some people have to market it a certain way and that’s good but it deals with sexuality. It deals with sex. The reality of sex. But its not limited to that.
WCP: Your playwright-conference scene was fascinating. In that scene, there’s the moderator trying to put all of these black playwrights in a box. How do you, in your being a black playwright, resist labels or embrace them–be they black, American, or gay, avant-garde, etc.?
RO: My legs, mouth, parts of my being fall outside of the box. Whether it’s the black box, political box, male box, risky box. I’ve been in tons of boxes and I continue to go into more boxes. I like it. If you come to my play and think it’s a comedy. Great! It got you into the theater. Or if gay got you into the theater or black got you into the theater. It gets you to see the world is not a monolith.
WCP: Now with those boxes, usually people get stuck into one: If they put you in the black box, does that mean you can’t represent those other fragments of yourself, or do you inhabit multiple boxes at the same time?
RO: Well those boxes have nothing to do with my reality. Those boxes are constructed by other people so I don’t have any relationship to those boxes. Some people open the door and let all of me come in. Other people go, 'We just want the black you to come in.' So I still come in. I don’t feel the need to marry any of those boxes. People will see me through the prism that they put me in. If you see me in the political and black. Wonderful. That’s great. I understand them and I work in the American theater so I know how why those boxes are important. I’m not an idiot but it doesn’t mean I have to pretend that it doesn’t exist. No one hires me without having done his or her homework.
WCP: I read your quote about your frustration that because of those boxes you’re not asked to direct plays that people think are out of your league. "Stay in your lane: You can only do the black or gay thing." Do you see a silver lining where you can break out of that and do whatever you want to do?
RO: Because I write and direct I have the ability to use both sides of my brain whenever I want to. If someone wants me to do one thing—I’m usually given very interesting projects. But sometimes you just want to do a regular play also because those are fun. I don’t run theater. I don’t own anything. I’m basically a freelance artist...I can only say that I’d like more and hope someone hears me. Because I’m a creative individual, I love the work that I do but would love more diverse work.
Some people don’t understand that black playwrights can write things aside from race. White people can write about race. I don’t understand why they’re not writing about race. I don’t allow that sort of attitude to engender what I do. I do with what I want to do. My job is to create. Other people's job is to produce this.