A Play by Robert O’Hara
Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
Roberts Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion
March 12-April 9, 2016
Bootycandy is not a high theater experience but it is outrageously funny. Picture a series of loosely held together vignettes that exaggerate racial, sexual, and cultural stereotypes with humor and compassion and you begin to get the idea.
In a press release, playwright Robert O’Hara says, “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 (grandmother) and Lillie Ann (mother).”
As improbable as the play vignettes seem, O’Hara says he actually lived them growing up black, gay, talented and smart. White audience members might be used to seeing such comedic portrayals of black characters on TV sitcoms but rarely in a play. The play opens with scenes that explain the derivation of Bootycandy (your first guess is probably the correct one) that actually was part of O’Hara’s experience. The tone is set from there.
The portrayal, verging on caricature, of black women, gay black males, and clergy was a combination of acute observation and good-hearted acceptance. Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene, John Kuntz, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent give fabulously over the top performances in their revolving roles as grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, lovers, friends, and preachers. Each has at least one scene that takes down the house.
Johnny Lee Davenport’s turn as a preacher who, during a memorable sermon, doffs his minister robe to reveal a slinky silver lamé gown and glittery size 12 high heels sets the bar for outrageousness in an early scene. John Kuntz playing a racially obtuse TV host is uncomfortable for a white audience to watch. Tiffany Nichole Greene and Jackie Davis engaging in a phone conversation in which they discuss a friend’s choice to name her daughter Genitalia is high camp and deliriously well-delivered.
Through it all, Maurice Emmanuel Hall (who represents O’Hara) is the unifying strand in his role as Sutter from naïve pre-teen to fragile adult male in the 1970s. The music of Michael Jackson blasts intermittently from the opening scenes to the finale.
Again from the press release quoting O'Hara: “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.’”
Director Sumner L. Williams had no apparent difficulty managing the freewheeling shifts in scenes and characters. Design team of Jenna McFarland Lord (scenic), Amanda Mujica (costumes) and Jen Rock (lighting) and David Wilson (sound, much of it tracks of Michael Jackson songs) capture the era of the 1970s in which the playwright grew up.
Most of what theatergoers know about the gay life experience is through movies or television. “Bootycandy” puts it on the front burner in black and white. I’ll bet that O’Hara’s mother is still shaking her head about this, but her son’s portrayal of his life, as crazy as it is, offers a window into a culture white audiences rarely see.