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Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bootycandy

By intermission, I found Bootycandy to be an entertaining, occasionally insightful, and random collection of skits. By the end of the play, I realized that Bootycandy is a smart, brave, wily, and important exploration of race, sexuality, and humanity, and an entertaining, very insightful, not-so-random collection of skits.

Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes,
Benja Kay Thomas, Lance Coadie Williams
Photo: Joan Marcus

Written and directed by the impressive Robert O'Hara, Bootycandy mainly presents scenes from the life of Sutter, a gay African-American. There are also scenes without Sutter. One of them, a rather extraordinary sermon, is clearly part of Sutter's story. Another, an almost mugging, seems out of left field, but turns out to be a set-up for a later scene. Together, they add up to an amazingly complex whole that depicts and often satirizes black culture, white culture, theatre culture, black homophobia, white homophobia, human stupidity, and the ways that difficult childhoods can warp people's souls.

I've been struggling to find a way in to discuss Bootycandy, because it is so many things at once, and no one aspect can be discussed without reference to pretty much everything else. However, I just read Charles Isherwood's review--a rave--and realized that he provides a way in for me: discussing what he missed or misunderstood.

Spoilers. Beware.
Let's start with Isherwood's description of Bootycandy as "Robert O’Hara’s searing and sensationally funny comedy about the sometimes poisonous attitude toward homosexuality in black culture." Well, the show is certainly searing and sensationally funny. And it is about the sometimes poisonous attitude toward homosexuality in black culture, to the extent that Streetcar Named Desire is about a woman with a drinking problem or Long Day's Journey into Night is about a man who has tuberculosis. It's not wrong, but it sure ain't right. Bootycandy is also about families, about the ghetto-ization of playwrights of color, about blaming the victim, about men who sleep with men but marry women, and about how love can morph into hatred. And that's not all!

Isherwood writes that the play presents "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." Really? Racism has nothing to do with who Sutter is? His teenaged sexual relationship with a friend's father? The fact that he loved and slept with his sister's husband?

Later, Isherwood writes:
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. 
The "disturbing culmination" is Sutter raping the drunk white man with a large black dildo. The breaking of the fourth wall is the other actors mutinying and refusing to be part of this sordidness and violence, and the scene is nullified. What O'Hara does here is far from stale. He takes us to the brink with Sutter, then honors the humor-centered conceit of the play by pulling back. He makes us feel the ugliness, strongly, and we cannot undo having experienced it. He reminds us, in the middle of so much entertainment, how hatred and the -isms and -phobias can twist the soul. And then he gives us a break by going back to being funny. His decision strikes me as similar to Stephen Sondheim's decision to end the first act of Sweeney Todd with "A Little Priest." It requires balance and timing to take an audience with you to dark places.

And about Isherwood's sentence, "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": I don't believe Mr. O'Hara was suggesting that at all. First of all, Sutter specifically says that he seduced the older man. Second, in a scene late in the play where the older man is checking up on him, Sutter gives him a smile of total sweetness. I may have an odd point of view about this, because I don't subscribe to the idea that all gay man-teen relationships are by definition abuse. I have known a number of gay men who consider themselves to have been rescued by the older man they slept with when they were teens. I also think that this is a case where the man's race is not particularly relevant.

In fact, I think that Isherwood's review is too race-based on a whole. One of O'Hara's conceits in Bootycandy is that race is not so easily defined. During the scene where the fourth wall has been breached, the two actresses identify nationally as British rather than racially. In another scene, where a moderator at a panel refers to a character in a play as white, the playwright denies that the character was white at all. The same moderator is flabbergasted when one of the playwrights asks what the theme of the panel is. He is white; he sees four black playwrights; he cannot comprehend that there could be another theme than blackness. Again and again, O'Hara denies race as "master status."

Also, I have known white versions of many of the people in the play--the characters' blackness is far from their sole defining characteristic. Take the woman who tells the same story over and over and over again: she exists in many cultures, in male and female form. My dad's language isn't as colorful, but it is as repetitive. And then there are the parents who feel that their child needs to man up by switching to sports from musical theatre: again, this idea is not limited to African-Americans!

Race can't be ignored in Bootycandy. In fact, that race isn't ignored is part of the point. But that race often should be ignored is also part of the point.

Isherwood says, critically I think: "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." This scene is a lovely denouement that allows O'Hara to tie up some themes with cleverly structured flashbacks. It also boasts a profound and silly speech in which a young Sutter declares that if men would lick each others' penises and make the penises big and happy, the men would stop needing to go to war. It's a better solution than any the world's leaders have come up with, and it is also a sweetly joyous celebration of gay sexuality.

End of spoilers
O'Hara has given himself a dream cast for Bootycandy. Phillip James Brannon as Sutter remains emotionally real even in the most extreme moments, and he balances Sutter's sweetness and anger beautifully. Jessica Frances Dukes, Jesse Pennington, Benja Kay Thomas, and Lance Coadie Williams play at least five characters each, and they are no less than brilliant as any of them.

The scenery is a wonderful carousel of perfectly evocative sets, and the costumes are exactly right; both were designed by Clint Ramos. The other design elements are also quite good: lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Lindsay Jones; projections by Aaron Rhyne; and hair and makeup by Dave Bova. Together, the designers support and enhance O'Hara's work and goals.

Playwrights Horizons has produced produced six Pulitzer Prize winners so far (Annie Baker's The Flick, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George). I hope Bootycandy becomes the seventh.

(third row, member ticket)