Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara at SpeakEasy Stage Company

I realized after attending the production of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy at SpeakEasy Stage Company that I had inadvertently bought season tickets to Director Summer Williams this past year. Last Spring she directed Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Shiv, one part of The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy, and in the Fall she directed Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, both regional premieres with Company One, of which Williams is a founding member. More recently, she directed the New England premiere of Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon as a coproduction of Company One and ArtsEmerson. An Octoroon played to packed houses when it opened for the first time in New York in early 2015 and sparked controversy around its use of blackface and redface. (Read Holly L. Derr’s take on An Octoroon here.)

Williams brought An Octoroon and Bootycandy—plays by two different playwrights and produced by two different companies—into dialogue with each other. The two scripts have a lot in common: they are both concerned, in part, with the nature of the signifier “Black Playwright,” and they both use postmodern structural games in storytelling without postmodernism’s characteristic cynicism. Williams’ An Octoroon was a meditation on the tragic limitations of art in the face of the continuing oppression of African Americans by a political system and a culture built around white privilege. By deliberate contrast, Williams staged Bootycandy as a celebration of the emancipatory potential of performance itself.

Robert O’Hara is often written about as a playwright concerned with race, gender, and sexual orientation, but I would argue that these topics are O’Hara’s contexts rather than his themes.

Robert O’Hara is often written about as a playwright concerned with race, gender, and sexual orientation, but I would argue that these topics are O’Hara’s contexts rather than his themes. Each of his plays has a very specific concern. Antebellum, for example, explores the parallels between the fascist “Final Solution” and the heritage of slavery in the American South by literally putting both worlds on the same stage at the same time.

actors performing
Johnnie Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in the SpeakEasy Stage production of Bootycandy. Photo by Glenn Perry Photography.

Bootycandy’s tone and subject matter couldn’t be more different. The play is a sequence of eleven short one-acts which gradually reveal themselves to be interconnected. Two men and two women perform many roles, some of which reappear across scenes. The fifth male member of the ensemble plays Sutter, our protagonist, who at times seems to be a cipher for O’Hara, although his story ultimately diverges from the playwright’s (or at least one hopes it does, as Sutter becomes implicated in a man’s suicide by means of a possibly non-consensual sexual encounter). This moment and its aftermath are the breaking point of the play. Immediately afterward, the actors emerge out of character as shifting versions of themselves. It is a theatrical device which goes back at least a century, to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, but O’Hara uses it to his own ends. These actor-spirits emerge to torment the playwright, accusing him of staging nothing more than a “sick Fantasy” (O’Hara’s capitalization in the printed script).

By implication, every vignette in the play becomes just another fantasy, and Sutter is exposed—O’Hara exposes himself—as an exhibitionist. In the context of the play, this is a serious threat to his claim to be an artist. Most of these fantasies are non-sexual wish-fulfillments, and once we understand them this way, many become more meaningful. For example, a traditional black pastor preaches acceptance while wearing high heels and a sequined dress can be seen as the fantasy of a gay black man raised in the church. Through the lens of Fantasy, the scene becomes much more than a funny sketch. Another scene features a conference panel from (and possibly in) hell in which four playwrights are repeatedly asked to identify themselves and their work exclusively under the banner of “Black Playwright.” As the panelists get nowhere with their clueless white moderator, the situation devolves into what O’Hara calls the Theater of Choke. The playwrights chant “Choke muthafucka choke, Choke muthafucka choke,” and allow the moderator to choke a few seconds before restoring his breath. In the final scene of the play, we realize that the scene that traces Sutter’s affair with his brother-in-law was perhaps, real? We aren’t sure. No matter, however, as memory and fantasy serve the exhibitionist’s imagination equally.

A man speaking to the audience
Johnny Lee Davenport as Reverand Benson in the SpeakEasy Stage production of Bootycandy. Photo by Glenn Perry Photography.

If Sutter’s shameful self-reckoning is also O’Hara’s, the question left to the director is, to what extent are the audience are asked to be voyeurs and reckon with their own enjoyment? The ensemble of the SpeakEasy production welcomed us in through laughter and empathy. I can imagine a more confrontational, and therefore perhaps more queer production of Bootycandy. (I owe this observation to a conversation with my friend Joseph Downs.) But for Boston audiences, I think Williams made the right call, and one that is consonant with her point of view as a director: to make aesthetically and politically challenging work that nevertheless opens the door to a broader audience.

In Bootycandy, Williams riffed on many of her choices in An Octoroon. Both plays featured a final surprise in the set design before the last scene. The most important continuity, though, was in her deliberate handling of performance style from scene to scene. O’Hara does not give strong stylistic instructions in his script, although some scenes are written in verse and some in prose, a variation which in itself is suggestive. But Williams had just come from directing a play which requires an entirely new performance style located halfway between nineteenth century presentational melodrama and contemporary naturalism. It’s my hunch that when Williams came to Bootycandy, she didn’t read it as a sequence of discrete scenes: she saw an opportunity to explore contemporary presentational performance styles by bringing them halfway into a theatrical context.

For example, the scenes about Sutter’s childhood are played with approximately three and a half walls in a style evocative of sitcoms, but grounded in painfully real human relationships. It is ultimately the director’s ethical prerogative, when handling ironic material, to find the right balance between the audience’s enjoyment and alienation. The skilled ensemble knew how to handle a comedy as well as pathos, and Williams invited us to laugh at situations representative of real human suffering without erasing the reality of that suffering. It is clear that Williams stands on the side of the audience’s pleasure. She wants her work to be enjoyable.

actors performing
Johnnie Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, and John Kuntz in the SpeakEasy Stage production of Bootycandy. Photo by Glenn Perry Photography.

But in both An Octoroon and Bootycandy, there were unscripted pauses, or rather holds, that I think make clear that Williams is aware of the fine line she is walking. In An Octoroon, the cipher-for-the-playwright character talks us through the climax of the play, which he decides (in a move similar to the break at the climax of Bootycandy) not to stage. In the story, a ship burns down. The character tells us that sometimes he’d like to burn the theatre down, with all of us—a predominantly white audience—in it. The line lands as a joke. A wave of laughter ran through us. The actor holds. Then holds some more. The laughter dies off. With his gaze he tells us, no, seriously, I’m not kidding. He makes sure we’ve heard his silence. Then he carries on. In Bootycandy, the moderator of the nightmare panel asks one of the panelists how she came to be named Terry O’Malley. The playwright frankly snaps back “Slavery.” Several waves of laughter ensue: one or two from the shock of hearing something we aren’t supposed to talk about handled, with wit, so publically, then also at the moderator’s discomfort; another one or two waves for those in the audience who suddenly remember that the playwright who constructed this joke is named Robert O’Hara; another wave for the few of us—maybe this was just me—who had a fantasy in the moment that this might very well have been a snappy comment that O’Hara himself delivered in real life. A few more awkward chuckles after that, as the actors are still holding…then, silence in the theatre. And they continue to hold. Until we realize: Slavery. Right. God. And what is it that’s happening in this scene, exactly?

And they continue to hold. Until we realize: Slavery. Right. God. And what is it that’s happening in this scene, exactly?

In both of these cases, the moment was an accusation directed toward the white audience, but perhaps also toward people of color in the house as well. As a Jew, a Holocaust joke, in a majority-gentile audience structured with this rhythm, might be just as disturbing, even today. For all of us, the question abruptly brought into focus is: How can I be laughing at this? These are the subtle moves Williams weaves through her work. It works.

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