Robert O'Hara on Bootycandy
My grandmother, Lizzie Bee O'Hara, was known by various names to various people for as long as she was in my life: Bee, Aunt Bee, Lizzie, Lizzie Bee, Mrs. O'Hara, Granny, Sister, Grandmama, Mama. (And a whole host of other names whenever she and my Grandfather cussed each other out. On a daily basis.) They had thirteen children, twelve of whom lived. Granny once told me that she delivered her twins herself “’Cause the fire truck didn’t get here on time.” My mother, Lillie Anne, was her third child and the first girl, and she had me when she was seventeen. Recently, she told me that I was a virgin birth. When I asked her what that meant, she said she didn’t understand how I got here because it was her first time, she was a virgin when she got pregnant with me, and she and my father “really didn’t do nothin’.”
I was always called “special”—“gifted” by my teachers at school. And immediately after telling my mother this, my teacher would also mention “He talks too much.” I was always put in advanced classes, and—most times—I was the only black person in class. I was the only black person in our high school musicals; I was the only black person in show choir and the vocal ensemble; I was once threatened by a student who said if I won any more awards during the school year he’d beat me up.
My uncles were teenagers when I was growing up, and by the time I was three years old, they pretty much started calling me “faggot” to my face (this was, of course, only during those times between their stints in “juvie”). My grandfather was a construction worker, and it was only recently that I found out that his name,“T.J.,” was short for “Thomas Jefferson,” though—to this day—I still don’t understand why everyone in his life called him “Judge.” I peed in the bed until I was probably twelve or thirteen. And I was obsessed with Michael Jackson.
The play Bootycandy started out as a ten-minute piece to begin an evening of short pieces that I’d written over the span of ten years—all disconnected and all fairly outrageous. This evening of short pieces was produced over a decade ago by Partial Comfort, the then-fledgling theater company. About five years later, I got a call from the folks at Woolly Mammoth Theater in D.C., asking if I’d consider taking some of the characters that populated the disparate short pieces and writing a full-length play with a throughline. I said I’d think about it, but I thought the idea was silly because the short pieces were only connected by... my having written them all. Then, I looked at them again. There were some interesting characters. And a full-length play began to emerge. Four of the short pieces remain from the original evening, but none in their original form.
At first I was reluctant to directly acknowledge the autobiography of Bootycandy, but now, I own it completely. It is my life. Or close to it. All of the scenes in Bootycandy are based on facts. Some of the most outrageous lines were actually uttered. There are witnesses, and they know who they are. It is tough to describe exactly what this piece is other than to say it is the experience, through my eyes, of being black, gay, and gifted—with what I’m not quite sure. That’s for you, the viewer, to tell.
I’m crazy. My entire extended family is a nut house—complete and utter fools. I think about my childhood and laugh out loud. Constantly. I won’t tell you what “Bootycandy” means. That’s explained in the first five minutes of my play. But I heard that word throughout my adolescence, mostly from Lizzie Bee and Lillie Ann.
All I know for sure is this: when I told my mother that a theater was putting on my play Bootycandy, her response was, “What?! Bootycandy? These white folks are going to let you put on a play called Bootycandy?!? Are they crazy???”
And my response was, “Yes. Yes indeed.”