Artist Interview: Robert O'Hara
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of Mankind
Tim Sanford: Talk a little bit about the one act play that Mankind started from. Who asked you to write it?
Robert O’Hara: It’s the same people that I did Bootycandy with: Partial Comfort. It was their tenth anniversary, actually. So Bootycandy I think was one of the first things that they did and for their tenth anniversary they asked me to write something else. So I wrote them the one act play called Fuckmate which became the first scene of Mankind.
And it was performed?
Yes, it had a run actually. They commissioned writers from their ten seasons to write ten-minute plays. And I think they ran them for a couple of weeks.
And this was before we did Bootycandy?
Yes, I think it might have been between when Woolly [Mammoth] did it and when you guys did it here.
Was it fun? Did it perform well?
Yes. It performed well. There was a little bit of negotiation about what exactly they would be wearing, because the original said, “Two naked men appear in the darkness.” I like that it would be sort of strange and weird to have an argument with your clothes off. (Tim laughs.) Especially because it gets down to the bare essence of the argument really quickly. Or it just turns into stupid behavior. So I handpicked the two men that were doing it and we worked out what they would wear and who would be the person that’s pregnant. And it went off very, very well.
Did you think it could be the start of a bigger play?
I had been thinking about it, about what would happen after this scene, but I was involved in other things. And I don’t usually start writing until there’s some bigger idea in mind. My plays are always so out there. I don’t often write a play just to write a play.
So you waited until Playwrights Horizons gave you a commission?
I did actually. I knew this was what I wanted to do for Playwrights Horizons.
And we commissioned you about the same time we did Bootycandy, right?
The commission was right before I went into rehearsals for Bootycandy. And the play came quickly, but I think it was sitting in there for a while.
So I assume the tone of the one-act is similar. Like every other word of these guys is “dude,” you know? There’s nothing “gay” about these characters, really.
No. No identifiably, stereotypically “gay” characters, because “gay” doesn’t exist in this world. It’s two dudes who have to negotiate this event like they’re changing a flat tire. That’s how I wanted it to feel. Like they actually aren’t as invested as they should be invested in this idea.
Do I remember correctly from our Bootycandy interview that you said you have an affinity for sci-fi?
Well, my first play, Insurrection, is about a graduate student at Columbia, which I was, who goes back in time to the Nat Turner rebellion and falls in love. And my play Antebellum is set in two locations at the same time — one’s in Nazi Germany and one is in the Antebellum South. You could say I have what you might call sci-fi ideas, but to me it’s just a sort of heightened sense of theatricalization. Not necessarily sci-fi. But I do like sci-fi, I just don’t like sci-fi that gets bogged down in the minutiae of it. Like, I don’t like when there are these long passages about what they eat. I could care less about what they eat. I want to know what the story is, you know what I’m saying? That’s why I can’t read Lord of the Rings but I can watch it, because then I don’t have to sit through all the minutiae of it, I can just sit through the plot of it.
Since Bootycandy you wrote… help me with your titles.
Zombie: The American. And then Barbecue.
Which is more of a social satire, really.
But there were two groups sharing the same storyline, so in many ways it felt sci-fi because people didn’t realize until halfway through what was going on, right? So it takes a storyline and changes the race of the cast after the first scene. That is sort of sci-fi in its own way.
Let’s talk about how Mankind evolved since you first showed it to us. As you said, you wrote it quickly, but then it evolved. I think especially the second act.
Well there was no second act. It was a ninety-minute one-act.
That’s right. It seemed like a natural break for an intermission after the church service.
I remember you saying that would be a great place for the audience to catch their breath and to sit inside that for a while. But, you know, we say that it came quickly, but for me… I had been working on it off and on in my head, as an idea, but not as something that I would actually do, because I had other projects. So for me it’s been a longer process than just how long it took after I started to sit down at my computer and write it.
But the idea that this would be part of a future society, that came to you fairly quickly, right?
Oh yeah, but putting it down on paper is different. The way I work, I will often just ask friends — I have a lot of actor friends — and I’ll say, “I’m working on this little thing here, would you read part of it?” And sometimes if I didn’t know what comes next, the moment that we would read it, the next scene would appear for me. Just hearing it out loud. Sometimes I would keep it away from myself so that I wouldn’t force it. But I did know when I got the commission where I wanted to take this story, to the future. I did not know what that would mean. I only had the next scene, really, and I didn’t have the ending of the play.
When did you know that women were extinct in this world?
I pretty much knew that when I started to write it as a full-length. Because I was examining male behavior and I wanted men to have to go through what we put women through. And I didn’t want them to have any sense that this had happened before, you know? I wanted it to be a hundred years past so that there’s a lost sense of history.
The premise of the extinction of women resonates powerfully, but as a story point, it also requires a reason.
Once I knew that the reason was because of outlawing abortion, it opened up another focus point. When men don’t have women to project their sexually oppressive tendencies on, what does their relationship to each other become?
When you first wrote the play, I felt this premise very clearly: “What would become of men if they didn’t have women to oppress or take care of them?” Since you wrote it, the topicality of the play has sort of snowballed, to the point where someone looking at this play might think you had some sort of knee-jerk response to the world that’s happening right now and you dashed this off in the last six months or something? (Robert laughs.) When actually the world caught up with the play in a scary way. Scary both to people living in the world, but also as producers of the play. Like, “Wait a minute, now, we thought that the targets of this play were kinda sneaky, but now it just feels…”
It feels a little blatant. The world has become a satire.
And so you’ve made some adjustments to that tone.
I think the way the audience hears it is different now. The first time I heard a reading of it, I don’t think I had had a woman either read or hear it until then. And the men who were reading it all thought it was the most hilarious thing on earth. They were just like, “This is hilarious,” you know? But I think now you see in the audience, there’s a little bit of like, “Is this supposed to be funny?” Depending I think upon the age group, depending upon the economic level…
Yes, it’s also really tragic in a way, to watch, that this is the future. That someone that has imagined not only that women are not there, but that abortion is illegal, when so many people have fought for the right to it.
And honestly, I’ve always felt the play is outrageous, but it hasn’t struck me that the motor is hilarity.
The motor is more disturbing.
And sort of twisted. And thinking back through your work, that’s often the case. Like Antebellum is a disturbing play—
And actually in Bootycandy there are disturbing things—
Especially in the sexuality, which in your work often tends to skew dark.
I feel like it’s a way to also get the audience to listen. If you can bring them in through either comedy or laughter, just ease them into a place that they feel comfortable and then you should find yourself sort of choking. Stifling a laugh, and not being as comfortable as you were before.
Isn’t that in the dramaturg scene in Bootycandy? What’s the line?
They say: “We don’t want the audience to digest it.”
We want them to choke.
Yeah, we want them to choke. Because you feel where the food has gone down. You know that you’re human when you choke. Otherwise it’s just a mechanism. We eat every day. But once you choke you’re like, “Oh my god, there’s a swallowing mechanism in my mouth and I have to be careful.”
Someone asked you the other night if there’s a reason Jason is the one to get pregnant. Like is he more feminine? And you pointed out that Mark also got pregnant earlier, when he was younger. And yet I do understand that kind of association we make once Jason announces he’s pregnant, I find there’s a kind of association with feminine qualities that I start making.
And that I think is natural. And it was also something that the actor was going home and asking his fiancée about what it would feel like and he would come and make it a very emotional and very particular type of scene. And I would say, “That’s not satire.” He wanted to make it a real moment that was equal to what women go through, and I deliberately did not want to put that in there because I wanted that to be something that was lost.
In this world.
That the relationship to body, and relationship to nurture is lost. They talk a lot about their fathers, but there are no fathers in this play who have done a good job. And the play leaves you off with the hope that the next generation might do a better job, but there’s no father here that set an example.
There is that sense, that you’ve talked about before, of, in this world, “The women aren’t there so who am I gonna fuck over?”
Mostly it’s their children being fucked over. That’s what left. That’s who men now fuck over.
I’ve heard a few people ask you to respond to the famous Gloria Steinem quote: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” But in your play, it’s still illegal.
It’s because men are stupid. I think that we would be too stupid to go, “Wait a second we don’t have to do this, it’s happening to our bodies. Why don’t we just stop this whole thing about abortion being illegal?”
Plus, as the lawyer says, “It’s the law.” And a part of being a man is upholding the law—
Stupidly following old things! And I think that is part of what being not just a man, but also a country, is to rely on rules that you did not make up, that make no sense now, but give structure to the society. And in many ways I think that’s what this world is relying on. The only people who have names in the play are Jason and Mark. Everyone else is a part of some sort of structure. So there is a Detective, there is an Attorney, there’s the Warden, there is a Cry-Baby, and there is an OBGYN. They’re all inside of a structure; they’re inside this machine, really. And the set is almost like a machine. It was interesting because I really didn’t talk with Clint [Ramos, set designer] about what I was looking for in terms of the design of the show. I always like to see how a play speaks to designers first, because it helps me; all the collaborations help me to further write the play, actually. But yes, back to your question about men and following laws, I think that is true. I think we were all sort of brought up in many ways to follow the law whether we agree with it or not.
The big unexamined miracle at the heart of the play is the birth of Cry-Baby, which is actually no more unexplained, I guess, than a guy getting pregnant to begin with.
But it’s also the same thing as the birth of Christ. No one examined that. God didn’t go to Mary and say, “Look, do you want to carry a child for nine months? Is your husband okay with this?” No, that didn’t happen, at least that’s not the part of the story I know. All of a sudden she got pregnant and she had a baby. So I examine it as far as that, to me, because that is the point: to sort of skip over some major plot points that I think many religions skip over. And just get to the sin and the redemption, you know. And so that was the through-line of the play. Each scene has a sort of target, in a way, that lands you in the next scene. And it usually has something to do with a trigger that the protagonists have pulled without knowing it. For instance, them saying “Goddess” out of the blue, or them asking for money, or wanting to get out of jail, or what have you. Those things trigger the rest of the scenes. And they’re trapped inside it because their behavior is about financial gain and ego. I think those are strongly male behaviors, or at least our culture defines masculinity that way.
The play doesn’t portray the political power structure of the world in much detail. We learn about something called the World Power Authority, which I assume is meant to be global, but its characteristics seem American.
I think if you remove over half of the population, the world would get smaller, right? I think there was probably chaos and pandemonium and a power vacuum that would pave the way for someone to take the reins and get a hold of all these desperate individuals. But it’s not total control. It’s like our world: the world will let things happen, as we can see, that our world is letting things happen all over and not doing anything about it.
We do get some sense of how the power structure came to be via André [de Shield]’s character, who plays the lawyer twice. The first time through, where he talks about abortion laws and the disappearance of women, gives us a sense of the reactionary character of the government. And we’ve seen the “crime” happen. The second time is more like a frame-up job. The so-called crime is all made up. It’s a cover-up.
It’s almost like he’s the lawyer, judge, and jury. He literally says to them, “Listen carefully and then convict them.” I think of André’s character like when you bring up abortion, you get the same group of people that come out with the same posters, saying the same tired sh*t to people. And I think André is that guy who when there’s an abortion case, they just dust him off and bring him to the front and he comes out and says what he’s said over and over. He is a metaphor for the old world. It dusts off this old law and puts it there, “Okay, the Bible says marriage is between men and women,” and I’m like, “What if I don’t believe in the Bible?”
So there’s still a nominal sense of democracy; like Jason says, “Well I have the rights of childbirth.” And this church is able to start up.
There are tons of churches. I think there are probably more churches because they don’t know what happened to women. And so people were probably being more spiritual, but that doesn’t really translate into their behavior, right? Lots of people who have not led by example tell you that you should be upstanding: the church, the government. But this is a world where, of course, men are having sex with each other all over the place. The OBGYN says, “You’d be surprised how many men come in and they don’t know who the father is.”
So the rise of feminism as a religion and the building of the temple is not immediately viewed by the World Power Authority as a direct threat. People can build temples if they want to in this society.
It’s like the scientologists. You see one of their centers and you go, “Who put this big f*cking thing in the middle of nowhere?!” Then stories of kidnapping and other horror stories come out about it and you go, “Wait a second, there’s something wrong with these people.” So I think of it like that, that they have a lot of people with a lot of money and they built this f*cking building and in this day and age in the future, that takes maybe a week, to build a temple.
So Jason and Mark were removed from prison into the temple and the government knows about it?
They were broken out of prison through the help of people, the undercover feminists, and they got them out and now they’re in — it’s like a Waco sort of thing. There are thousands of people outside praying to them. You can’t just go in and take them out without killing a lot of people. There needs to be some semblance of diplomacy before you go and lay down the law. So the World Power Authority says, “Look you guys need to come out or we’re going to come in there.” And then they drop a bomb on them. So they basically save no face whatsoever. It’s just like, “We’re gonna do this, here’s a warning, now you’re gonna get it.” It reminds me of Doctor Strangelove. No one saves the day. It just keeps slipping away and ends with nuclear war. And I know that, in my head, when I was writing the play, I was not trying to write myself into a place that I have to get out of. I don’t want to get out of it. I want us to go as far off course as possible and just be there. As opposed to figuring out a way to bring women back in this world and make everything okay, because it won’t be.
What’s the function of “The Bob and Bob Show” in the play?
When I think of Bob and Bob I think of bobble heads. You know, just two people who actually have no relationship to each other, but just are talking heads. I wanted to have some sense of what news would be like, at this time. And I was thinking of The Hunger Games, where it was just another performance. And so to me, they sort of function as Not Mark’s Father, André’s character, as giving us an outside view of what’s happening in the world. Taking us to the next part of the story without us having to see them get taken out of jail.
Is it like in The Hunger Games where the talk show is actually the voice of the government? One of the inspired later adjustments you made was that Jason and Mark used to reenact the dialogue from the “Fuckmate” scene in the Bob and Bob show, but then you changed it to them playing a surveillance tape of that scene on the show. So Bob and Bob have access to that. Someone from the government had to—
Leak it. Exactly. I do think that the media and the government work hand in hand. Sometimes it’s in a very you-wash-my hand-I-wash-yours way, and other times it’s in a combative way. But I think of how everything was leaking out of Trump’s administration; that wasn’t by accident. That came out of relationships between them. So I do think that in this world the government also has a relationship to the media, but I think that if the government did something that made the media wanted to turn on them, they would. And then the government would have to crack down on them. I don’t think that the government has cracked down on them here. But I do think that they’re closely watched. I’ll say that. Just like Trump closely watches the media now. I think that the government closely watches these people, and will push them in a certain direction like Trump likes to push Fox News in a certain direction.
You’ve talked about how some scenes, when you write them, are kind of a surprise to you. And an example of that for me is the scene between Jason and Mark at the top of Act Two. We’ve seen them go from f*ckmates to criminals to priests. They’re almost like heroes in an action, sci-fi story, in a way. Then we go to the second act and they are in divine robes and crowns, and suddenly Jason is like, “Don’t you think it’s time for us to have an actual conversation?” And to me that scene is so unexpected. It’s sort of like, “Let’s put the futuristic storyline aside for a second and look at who these characters are.”
Well, it came about because the play sort of doesn’t stop, but the play pauses because they end up in the most surreal place. I mean, we start with them in a bedroom, and then in the middle of the play they’re in a temple. And we don’t usually like to talk about sex in religious environments, even though there are all types of sex in religious stories. But what I wanted to have happen in that scene is to have them acknowledge that they had no idea who the other person is and how they got here. So they say, “We don’t know each other. Tell me something about you.” And the first thing that they think about is the thing that they have in common and that is sex. And so how did you first begin having sex. Which is something that I find really interesting because we don’t talk about it as a culture, in terms of preparing people for that event. And yet we celebrate the Immaculate Conception over and over.
Do you think people share about sex in their relationships or are they afraid to reveal it?
I think they may share with their friends more than they share with their partner, because it’s inevitably an awkward situation, the first time. I’ve never been with a woman sexually in terms of intercourse, but most of the men that I know who have, the one thing that they always harp on is that it happened so quickly. It was done so quickly. And they felt like they didn’t really do their job in a way because it was such an out-of-this-world experience for them and they couldn’t control their bodies. So in the play they talk about where they were and how their fingers touched and it’s not normally like that when men talk about their first time. That’s why I love that scene.
So how does this conversation advance the story? Does it bring them closer to each other?
Yes, it brings them closer to each other because with these two experiences that they share, there is no sense of having to prove something to someone or even to themselves... They don’t have to prove they are a “man,” they don’t have to prove they’re “not gay,” they don’t have to prove they can “last,” and you don’t usually hear one man say that another man was “gentle” with him during his first time. It all plays on those “first time” stories. And with Mark, his is also about his first time, but his first time led to his illegal abortion, so yes, this sharing brings them closer to each other and hopefully brings the audience closer to the both of them.
The idea of a world without women keeps ballooning in the play. At first, as you’ve pointed out, it kind of highlights how dopey men are. But then it really starts to show how out of balance the world is, so in the church service we confess together how we don’t treasure women and how we need them.
And how if no one’s here to tell you exactly what feminism is, you could actually interpret it in a warped way and then use it to kill each other. If you don’t have the other, then your ignorance is allowed to blossom and just take over the world, basically.
Yeah. Which leads then, of course, to feminists saying, “I think our understanding of the world would be much simpler if we just eradicated women completely.” It’s like one of the bleakest moments in the play, when women are written out of the Bible.
Well you can blame my assistant, Nora [Casey], for that line. Because it used to say, “We think the Dawn of Mankind should begin just after the disappearance of women.” And she pointed out that these feminists are essentially removing women entirely from feminism. And I’m like: “You’re absolutely right. Let’s change ‘Dawn of Mankind’ and make it ‘Feminism.’” And that’s collaboration. And it exactly hits the satire of it. Like, “We’re gonna remove women from feminism because it’s gonna be easier.”
And then Mark’s last line is, “How much will they pay me?” (They laugh.) And his father nods his head knowingly.
Right! That’s something that ties so many different parts of religion together for me; there’s a lot of money made on religion. And a lot of it is from telling people what they’re doing wrong and from leaving out all this other stuff in the storytelling. There’s a movie of “Noah’s Ark” that came out that made an uproar because it showed a bunch of white folks getting on the ark and I’m like, “What the fuck is going on?” And there’s the whole controversy about why they would do that and one of the producers was like, “Oh, we didn’t want to complicate it.” (Robert laughs.) Just like, “Oh so putting the world as it is would be too complicated?” And of course what they really meant was they didn’t want to have to explain certain things. And that to me is a very real thing; we leave out things that we don’t want to have to explain. And that to me is satire as well. It makes it satire. And it’s a very fine line, and I’ve discussed it before, to decide what to put in and what to take out because you have to commit to what’s in the play.
So after this really dark last scene with the Bible, we have the “epilogue.” And we meet Jason and Mark’s son. And I think it’s impossible for us both as humans and as playgoers not to want to grab on to any thread that resembles something hopeful? And I do. And I don’t know how deliberate that is on your part. What does the final scene mean?
Well, it’s hope but it’s also a deliberate act of teasing the audience, right? I’m presenting two people that you hope will be individuals that we can admire and trust that they would make better decisions than all the people we’ve seen before. And yet, their entire structure of life is built on a text that has removed women from feminism. So there’s this weird sense of like, “Oh yeah, you should hope that they’re better.” And yet there are still no women and they will actually keep waiting for women to return like we’ve been waiting for Jesus to come back. I always equate it with this time in my life where I was just going to church like kids just go to church. And then at one point I said something to someone and they said, “Well you know Jesus was a Jew.” And I was like, “That doesn’t make sense to me. How’s that possible?” I didn’t understand. Your brain starts to go, “Wait a second, there’s another world out there that’s different.” And I realized that I had been indoctrinated with this idea of the Bible as it is, and I had not actually examined any of it. And how crazy it is that Jesus was a Jew, and there’s all this anti-Semitism and yet the anti-Semitism comes from people who are putting a Jew in the middle of their services on a cross and praising a Jew. And yet there’s this hatred towards them. That was a fascinating moment very early in my life, where I said, “There’s something wrong here. There’s something wrong in what I’ve been learning.” And I would think that at the end of the play that, although it is hopeful, there should be something wrong with what is going on then.
They seem more effeminate? I can’t remember how you specified that in the script.
I don’t specify it in the script. But I said to the actors, “They’re softer.” And at one point one of the actors said, “I’m nervous about playing a stereotype at the end.” And I looked at him and I said, “And what do you think you’ve been playing up to this point?” (Tim laughs.) And he goes, “But that was my stereotype.” And I’m like, “Okay so then you can play another stereotype at the end.” I wanted the audience to have something that they can relax into. And seeing something that feels identifiably gay is something that I think we have become more and more comfortable with, especially in the theater. And I also wanted to make it almost circle back to where we are now. In that this is a play that’s all this futuristic stuff, and then two people come out that are sort of dressed in a way that we see people dressed now. And we can identify with them. We can see ourselves in them, or see them in people that we know.
You know the other thing that resonates for me as “gay” in a way is when they say, “No one wanted me, I was on the outside.” I can’t remember the line specifically…
He says, “I know I’m not what the world wanted. I’m not what you wanted, and I’m not what the world wanted.” That resonates with me too, in a sort of gay and transgender way also because he says “because I’m a boy.” And it’s... There’s all these different meanings in it for me. And the way he’s playing it. It’s about being an outsider and still living inside your truth.
And when he talks about his behavior, it’s a lot of shame. It’s “I was a whore” and “I just wanted to make another baby” and he couldn’t. And now he’s in love, and he’s pregnant, and he believes it’s gonna be a girl.
Exactly. And just like people believe that Jesus is coming back and died for them.
Which we could judge it and dismiss it, except for the fact that in this play someone did have a girl once. And we saw her and we know that it happened and wonder, “What are the rules? Are there rules that get set up or is it just random, once every 200 years?”
Who knows? It’s not my job to answer that question. But I do know that the world breaks open at the end and I don’t know if that’s God or SHE or whoever is coming down, or if it’s just coming from them, you know. But that’s what I think the beauty of theater is. I don’t have to answer that question, you guys can go home and have that conversation. And I think this is the type of play that I have heard from people, that they’re definitely having a conversation afterwards. It is not the play like, “Oh I get it.” But people have strong opinions about it, and I like that about the play, too.