In one of the sharpest scenes in “Bootycandy,” Robert O’Hara’s searing and sensationally funny comedy about the sometimes poisonous attitude toward homosexuality in black culture, an adolescent boy hesitantly tells his mother and stepfather that a man tried to follow him home from the library.
The reaction isn’t the concern and outrage we expect, to say the least.
“What was you doing?” his mother suspiciously demands.
Reading a book, comes the meek answer.
“You was just sitting up in a library reading a book, and some man got up and decided to try to follow you home?” she says scornfully.
His stepfather, vaguely hearing this conversation, barely looks up from his paper to mutter his own comment: “You need to take up some sports.”
The scene grows only more bracing and hilarious as the interrogation continues. When the boy, Sutter (Phillip James Brannon), who’s decked out in full Michael Jackson regalia, complete with one sequined glove, reminds his mother that this same man has approached him before, she and his stepfather continue to view his experience as proof of his own wayward behavior.
Why the hell is he reading the likes of Jackie Collins anyway? Why does he play so many Whitney Houston albums? The ultimate solution to this problem of men following him around, proposed by this dismissive mother: “This school year: no musicals.”
“Bootycandy,” which Mr. O’Hara has directed as well, kicks off the season at Playwrights Horizons in New York, where it opened on Wednesday night, with a big, bold bang, underscoring this theater’s reputation as one of the city’s more adventurous incubators of daring playwriting. As raw in its language and raucous in spirit as it is smart and provocative, the play depicts the life of a black gay man in a series of scenes that range widely in style. Many fly wildly into the realm of the absurd, while others are naturalistic pictures of Sutter’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality and the damage his culture’s attitude toward it may have inflicted on his psyche.
Mr. Brannon plays the central character throughout. Convincing as boy, teenager and man, he modulates his performance with wonderful grace as the tone shifts from scene to scene. Four other terrific actors — Jessica Frances Dukes, Benja Kay Thomas, Lance Coadie Williams and Jesse Pennington — each play several roles, many outrageously comic.
Passages from Sutter’s life alternate with scenes that play upon similar themes. In one, a minister, embodied by Mr. Williams in roof-raising hyper-evangelical mode, admonishes his flock for paying heed to salacious rumors about “sexually perverted” members of the church choir, only to rip off his clerical robes and reveal something rather startling underneath.
Another scene, as discomfiting as it is undeniably funny, depicts four women (played with tangy exuberance by Ms. Dukes and Ms. Thomas) discussing the preposterous name that one has chosen to give her new daughter: Genitalia. (Actually, the full name is Genitalia Lakeitha Shamala Abdul.) Later, in another uproarious and borderline tasteless scene, we see the grown Genitalia, now a mannish lesbian portrayed by Ms. Thomas, and her girlfriend, Intifada, played by Ms. Dukes, participating in a “noncommitment” ceremony in which they excoriate each other calmly but viciously.
Mr. O’Hara’s savage satire may at first seem like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t all fit together. But in retrospect, the design behind his surrealistic collage takes satisfying form. The scenes that stray from the narrative of Sutter’s life have all been supposedly written (or planned) by black playwrights, including Sutter, gathered at a conference overseen by a thoroughly clueless and ill-prepared white moderator, played with smarmy idiocy by Mr. Pennington.
As funny as he can be when writing in ribald “In Living Color” sketch-comedy mode, Mr. O’Hara also reveals a more probing intelligence in the more serious scenes from Sutter’s life (or the meta-drama of Sutter’s life, which is what we are really witnessing). In one of these, Sutter embarks upon a sexual relationship with Roy (Mr. Pennington), even though Roy claims to be straight. Although they discuss in intimate detail precisely who will do what to whom, when it comes to the matter of a kiss, the answer from Roy is a firm no. (More startling is the revelation of how these two came to know each other.)
Further proof of Mr. O’Hara’s admirable audacity comes in a dark passage late in the play, in which Sutter and a flamboyantly dressed friend (Mr. Williams) pick up, or allow themselves to be picked up by, a sloppily drunk white man, also claiming to be straight. What follows brings the play to a disturbing culmination, as Mr. O’Hara suggests that Sutter’s early seduction by an older white man has bred in him a burning need for some kind of psychosexual revenge.
The play takes a step back from the grim implications of this scene, in a sequence that exposes the artifice of theater making. It felt like a bit of a cop-out to me, as well as a somewhat stale bit of fourth wall breaking. Mr. O’Hara also chooses to conclude the play with its most sentimental scene, with Sutter paying an affectionate visit to his grandmother in a nursing home, ordering up ribs for her on his iPhone.
But he’s certainly earned the right to resolve the play’s jangling chords on a gentle note. What has come before more than proves that he’s got a sizable talent, not to mention another important asset for a playwright who wants to make his mark by shaking up the world, one audience at a time: fearlessness.
article by Charles Isherwood via nytimes.com