Gay Questions, Black Answers

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Surrounding the premiere of Bootycandy at Woolly Mammoth, Robert O’Hara spoke to D.C.’s MetroWeekly about studying theater at Columbia: “At the end of my first semester, at my evaluation, the Chair looked at me and said, ‘Your teachers think you’re a little bit too focused on African-American and gay issues.’ We’re sitting in Harlem. I’m the only black student in the department. I’m the only gay student in the directing program. And you’re going to tell me that I’m too focused on African-American issues and gay issues?”

In July 2012, R&B artist Frank Ocean released Channel Orange, pulling together modern and classic pop influences in a groundbreaking debut album. But it wasn’t just an artistic game-changer: the album shook things up culturally, too, when just before its release Ocean announced in a gorgeous letter that his first true love was another man. Many key hip-hop figures rallied in support of Ocean, notably Jay-Z, Kanye West and Beyoncé. “Today is a big day for hip-hop,” announced Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam. “It is a day that will define who we really are.” Later that very same month, Le1f, the openly gay rapper, released a jaunty video for his song “Wut” in which he sits on the lap of an oiled-up hunky guy wearing (tangentially) a Pokémon mask. In response, the websites Bossip and World Star jeered, “See What Frank Ocean Started?” and “This is what happens when rappers start admitting their [sic] gay.” 

Being black and gay is an intricate, tightly wound cultural knot. When CNN anchor Don Lemon came out, he said being gay is “about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine.” And when NBA pro Jason Collins came out, Salon’s Rob Smith wrote that “the hyper-masculine ideals forced upon young black boys combine with the homophobia of the black church to create a perfect storm of shame and secrecy.” Which is surprising, because there would seem to be sympathy between black and gay struggles for civil rights. In 1986, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin asserted that “blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. ...It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change.” But in 2008 when California passed Proposition 8, a bill that rejected gay marriage, it was widely attributed to black voters who, as reported by the Washington Post, “declined to see the issue through a prism of equality,” polling at 70% in favor of the ban.

Of course, there isn’t one black or gay community that speaks in a unified voice. It would be as dumb to think that Don Lemon or World Star can speak for the black community as it would be to think that Queen Latifah or Barney Frank can speak for the gay community. You can only take stock by listening to as many individual voices as you can. And when you do, what’s clear is—simply—that to be black and gay is a complex, fraught experience.

Ebro Darden of NYC’s hip-hop station Hot97 responded to Frank Ocean’s coming out: “I hope people judge him based on his music, not personal preferences.” And when gay NFL player Michael Sam was drafted by St. Louis in May, Obama offered his congratulations: “From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove every day that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.” These seem like terrific things to say—but only until you actually think about it. Are we being asked to not see that Frank Ocean and Michael Sam are gay?  Why should who one is be separate from what one does? Frank Ocean is a gay artist; Michael Sam is a gay athlete. Hidden in the title track of Le1f’s 2014 album Hey is the weighty line, “Ask a gay question/Here's a black answer”—a cutting, eloquent equation of two seemingly irreconcilable sides of his identity.

This equation seems to be the DNA of Robert O’Hara’s work, and it strikes me as crucial to understanding his dangerous, time-hopping, gender-bending, brutally funny plays. The ink still wet on his diploma from Columbia, he premiered his brilliant play Insurrection: Holding History (1996) at the Public Theater. In this comic fantasia, the legacy of slavery and the acceptance of homosexuality collide when we see a Columbia student follow his 189-year- old great-great grandfather back through time to Nat Turner’s infamous slave rebellion, where he falls in love with a male slave. He also connects the dots between racism and homophobia in Antebellum (2005), which travels between Nazi Germany and the American South when a black, gay transsexual prisoner escapes Germany only to stumble into racially-charged Atlanta on the eve of Gone With the Wind’s premiere in 1939. And in The Living Room (2008), the last two white people left on earth, a male and a female, are held captive on a stage by a gay black playwright who struggles with his feelings of disillusionment.

Robert’s plays are outlandish and bold; they’re broadly comedic, but sharp as a tack. Each of the three plays nut-shelled above (just a sampling of his rangy work) is shocking and incredible, but he pulls it off with innate, fearsome intelligence and theatrical finesse. As if courting horror, he steps out on a limb with each play, asking scary what-ifs that consistently take him into new territory. “I never write a play until there are at least 88 ideas bumping up against each other,” he told MetroWeekly. “Every play is an experiment.” And as he experiments, O’Hara compulsively takes stock of his plays along the way, often writing this self-analysis into the work itself, calling our attention to the act of writing, to the essence of the theatrical event: a question itches in a writer’s mind and is communicated, through the production, to our minds.

It’s hard to look at Bootycandy without seeing the influence of Robert’s early mentor, George C. Wolfe—particularly Wolfe’s seminal play The Colored Museum (1986). A fierce satire constructed of eleven vignettes, Wolfe’s play escorts us through a museum exhibit of black history, each scene a diorama that confronts an aspect of black America’s mythology. One sketch, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” parodies the well-worn tradition of domestic dramas modeled after A Raisin in the Sun. Another one, “Git On Board,” welcomes us to a “celebrity slaveship” bound for Savannah, whose passengers are warned they’ll have to “suffer for a few hundred years” in exchange for receiving a “complex culture.” Toggling between past and present, Wolfe’s exhibit—an attempt to reclaim cultural silhouettes—is an ecstatic, angry, take-no-prisoners grenade of a play that reaches out and back, finding fodder in history and the legacy of suffering.

Inspired by the structure of The Colored Museum, Robert O’Hara has also crafted a play through a series of fiery vignettes. But, written almost thirty years later, Bootycandy is more an evolution of Wolfe’s play than a tribute. Where Wolfe’s play explodes outwardly onto the culture at large, O’Hara’s is a more inwardly focused explosion, mining his own history and experience to parody not just the culture, but—rather poignantly—his personal role within it. We follow Sutter from childhood into the present in a dangerously funny kaleidoscope of scenes that confront head-on the complications of growing up as a gay, black playwright. It’s as much an intimate, uncompromisingly honest self-portrait as it is a timely snapshot of an American landscape that’s changing, perhaps able to reconcile—finally—notions of sexuality and race into one fabulous whole.

Adam Greenfield
Director of New Play Development