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Essay

Selected Works: Robert O'Hara

By Helena Pennington, Literary Fellow

Playwright and director Robert O’Hara has a reputation for writing and staging wildly imaginative work that embraces taboo and flaunts convention. Audacious, intelligent, and wickedly funny, O’Hara’s plays frequently cut to the core of contemporary American identity politics, often lingering on the fraught intersection of race and sexuality. As we welcome him back for his third production at Playwrights Horizons, we invite you to peruse this sampling of his anthology-to-date.


Insurrection: Holding History
1996, New York Shakespeare Festival/ The Public (NY)
Written and Directed by Robert O’Hara

In Robert O’Hara’s incisive professional debut — which won the 1996 Oppenheimer Award for Best New Play — a Columbia University grad student inadvertently travels back in time to Virginia, 1831, where he falls in love (or lust) with an enslaved man who ultimately participates in Nat Turner’s Rebellion.


In the Continuum
2005, Primary Stages (NY)
2005 Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (DC)
2005, The Goodman (IL)
Written by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter
Directed by Robert O’Hara

Sharply observed and achingly funny, In the Continuum follows the parallel experiences of two women, one a teenager in LA and the other a mother in Zimbabwe, who are both unexpectedly confronted with HIV diagnoses.


Antebellum
2009, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (DC)
Written by Robert O'Hara
Directed by Chay Yew

This haunting, provocative play sheds light on the similarities between racism and homophobia in Nazi Germany and the American South when a black, gay, transgender prisoner escapes Germany only to nd themselves embroiled in the racially-charged hotbed of 1939 Atlanta, Georgia.


The Brother/Sister Plays: The Brothers Size
2009, The Public (NY)
Written by Terrell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Robert O’Hara

Drawing on West African folktales for inspiration, this rich and emotionally resonant drama — the second in McCraney’s gently poetic series — explores the relationship between two adult brothers living in the Louisiana bayous.


The Etiquette of Vigilance
2010, Steppenwolf Theatre (IL)
Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Timothy Douglas

This poignant response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun imagines what might have happened in the 50 years since the Youngers became the rst black family to integrate Washington Park, one of Chicago’s notoriously segregated neighborhoods.


Bootycandy
2011, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (DC)
2014, Playwrights Horizons (NY)
Written and Directed by Robert O’Hara

Chronicling the coming of age of a young gay black man, this rollicking, semiautobiographical collection of madcap scenes and searing vignettes explores — and explodes — the intersection of blackness and queerness in contemporary America.


Wild With Happy
2012, The Public (NY)
Written by Colman Domingo
Directed by Robert O’Hara

In this heartfelt comedy, a struggling actor is forced to temporarily relocate to Orlando, Florida after learning of his estranged mother’s sudden passing. As bitingly funny as it is compassionate, Wild With Happy makes space for the gentle absurdity that lives between grieving and healing.


Barbecue
2015, The Public (NY)
Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Kent Gash

O’Hara toggles between a white and black cast in this mile-a-minute satire of a drug intervention drama — and, in doing so, energetically skewers assumption after assumption surrounding the complex intersection of race, class, and popular entertainment.


Zombie: The American
2015, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (DC)
Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Howard Shalwitz

The year is 2050, and the United States is in crisis: The East Coast has ooded, the Midwest has been ravaged in a scramble for resources, and, to top it all off, a rogue battalion of zombies has just emerged from the new Lord President’s basement.


The Wiz
2016, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OR)
Book by William F. Brown
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Directed by Robert O’Hara

Now a classic in its own right, this ebullient musical reimagines The Wizard of Oz through the lens of African-American experience. O’Hara discovered Ashley D. Kelley (who went on to play Bella in Kirsten Childs’ musical of the same name) when she auditioned for the Cowardly Lion; he cast her as Dorothy, instead.


Bella: An American Tall Tale
2017, Playwrights Horizons (NY)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Kirsten Childs Directed by Robert O’Hara

The effervescent joy of Kirsten Childs’ Wild West picaresque belies the heft of its historical and political project. This fierce, funny, whitewashed-American- history-correcting play follows its larger-than-life hero as she sees her Mississippi home and travels westward, discovering the full force of her power along the way.

Photo credits: Insurrection: Holding History – Company/by Michael Daniel. In the Continuum – Nikkole Salter/by James Leysne. Antebellum – Jessica Frances Dukes and Jenna Sokolowski/by Stan Barouh. The Brothers/Sister Plays: The Brothers Size – André Holland/by Sara Krulwich. The Etiquette of Vigilance – Alana Arenas and Alfred H. Wilson/by Peter Coombs. Bootycandy – Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes, and Benja Kay Thomas/by Joan Marcus. Wild With Happy – Colman Domingo and Sharon Washington/by Joan Marcus. Barbecue – Constance Schulman and Arden Myrin/by Joan Marcus.  Zombie: The American – Sarah Marshall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Tim Getman, and Thomas Keegan/by Stan Barouh. The Wiz – Ashley D. Kelley, J. Cameron Barnett, Christiana Clark, and Rodney Gardiner/by Jenny Graham. Bella – Ashley D. Kelley and company/by Joan Marcus.