Tim Sanford on Bootycandy
Robert O’Hara is not widely known as a playwright in New York. He has worked more often as a director. He has had one notable production of a play at the Public and several productions regionally, particularly at the Woolly Mammoth in DC. But as I’ve tracked his work in its various incarnations, including several readings over the years at Playwrights Horizons, I’ve come to admire him as one of the most adventurous playwrights I know. His work explodes conventions of race, gender, and history via wildly careening, daredevil shifts of tone and style that can turn on a dime from the furthest reaches of satiric extremity to a kind of purple emotive intensity bordering on melodrama. As a man, I’ve always found Robert one of the most effortlessly hilarious people I know. But his dramaturgical impulses often feel anarchic, more interested in blowing our minds perhaps than provoking guffaws.
I first encountered Bootycandy in a reading we did while Robert was midway through the process he describes in his bulletin article of expanding several short pieces into a full-length play. I was delighted to see Robert plunge headfirst into all-out comedy, but it felt like a bit of a lark, more a loose collection of skits than a play with a throughline. Still I welcomed the full-throttle hilarity it voiced. So when I drove down to Philadelphia a few years later to see the Wilma Theater’s production of Bootycandy, I expected to laugh, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the cohesion it had attained. It had become quite clearly the coming-of-age story of his central character, Sutter, showing us what it feels like to grow up “Young, Gifted, Black” and Gay, in a world of a whole lotta crazy. It was just as funny, even more so than before, but now it went somewhere. The audience was deliriously happy.
Great comedies don’t always get the respect they deserve. Sure there are plenty of breezy diverting comedies that don’t aspire to much. But there are also great comedies that function on their deepest level as unmasking agents. The greatest comic voices, from Lear’s Fool to Richard Pryor, are truth-tellers. The truth can be scary. We often take great pains to hide it from each other and from ourselves. Robert takes immense glee in stripping away illusions and delusions, and our laughter gives him license to keep stripping until we’re left with just our own skinny, naked selves, and the laughter falls away. There are moments in Bootycandy that will make you gasp; “Did that just happen?” But Robert has become more adept at navigating his tone shifts, and the play actually finds its purpose and throughline through them. Each scene explores some aspect of a racial or gender taboo and excavates a wild paradox within it, then pick, pick, picks at it until it bursts in an explosion of laughter. Then Robert puts on the brakes and makes us look at what just happened.
I’m so grateful that in the aforementioned bulletin article, Robert calls out the personal source of much of the play’s material. As the lone black face in a white world growing up, and being gay to boot, Robert developed a certain license to play the truth-teller jester. I couldn’t say to what degree his outsider status affects the content of his lampoonery. His targets are clearly well-known black archetypes. But his audience is thoroughly integrated, and the play is not unaware of the inherent ironies of that fact. Think of those sublime moments in Richard Pryor’s act when he would send up a white man. No one could outdo him, and no one laughed harder than the white people in his audience. Robert plays with similar ironies through the inclusion of a white male character in his cast, who embodies different facets of Mr. Status Quo throughout the play. The result is that it feels like nothing is off-limits in this play. There is an exhilarating no-holds-barred freedom to it. Its outrageousness and hilarity run neck and neck, superseded perhaps only by its courage, and its joy. It is a brilliant, flamboyant, wholly original work. I am so excited to launch our season with it.