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Theatre in Review: Barbecue (The Public Theater)

Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Shulman, and Arden Myrin. Photo: Joan Marcus

You don't really need to know my problems, but it was just a little while ago that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Gloria had many in the theatre press scratching their heads, trying to figure out exactly what could be revealed about a play loaded with ruthless, shocking plot twists. Now comes Robert O'Hara's Barbecue, which packs more curve balls than the last five editions of the World Series. Here goes...

We begin in a park where the middle-aged Lillie Anne has assembled her brother, James T., and her sisters Marie and Adlean to stage an intervention with their other sister, Barbara, a crack-addicted hellion also known as Zippity Boom. How terrifying is Barbara? Well, for one thing, there is an extended debate among the siblings about whether she still carries razor blades in her mouth, or if the loss of all her teeth has foreclosed on this possibility. What with the astoundingly vulgar dialogue -- everyone calls everyone else "fool" or "heifer," the prevalence of drug and alcohol addiction among them, and their ghastly wardrobes, which include leopard-print dresses and fringed tops, the characters would seem to fall into the category of white trailer trash.

But, a few minutes into the play, there's a blackout, and, when the lights come back on, the stage is filled with black actors assuming the roles (and costumes) of Lillie Anne and the others. The dialogue becomes, if possible, even coarser, as Lillie Anne's plan -- to get Barbara to agree to fly off, immediately, to a rehab center in Alaska, of all places - goes wildly awry, ending up with Barbara tied to a tree, while each of the others reads letters to her, begging her to get off the dope. If you found O'Hara's last work, the stratospherically over-the-top sketch comedy Bootycandy, not to your liking, you may find yourself settling in for a long night, as the audience roars at lines like "I don't have to go do nuthin' but stay black and die," or perhaps this delicate exchange:

Lillie Anne: I have it all set up.

Adlean: You have it all set up.

Lillie Anne: There is a place waiting for her. They are expecting her within the next 24 hours. It's called Halcyon Dreams. The plane ticket has already been bought.

Adlean: The plane ticket has already been-

Lillie Anne: Bitch, Is your name Echo?!! Yes a plane ticket! She can't WALK to Alaska can she?

But there's still the little matter of that racial switcheroo, which happens more than once, until the first act ends on what is sure to be the fakeout of this theatrical season. (Hint: Both Anthony Shaffer and Rupert Holmes have used it their thrillers; even if you guess it, you're still several steps behind the author.) This is only the first of many mind-bending devices, as the action jumps backward and forward in time, finally explaining the reason for the black-white double-casting and placing another narrative around it that, in addition to being hilarious, has plenty to say about the stories we tell about ourselves in 21st-century America. Let's just note that there is no personal failing or calamity that can't be lucratively marketed, if you know what you're doing.

That's all you'll get from me: I will add that the entire cast, which includes such familiar faces as Becky Ann Baker, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, and Kim Wayans, are experts at playing O'Hara's audience-baiting games, and that Soule and Tamberla Perry, as the two Barbaras, are given plenty of opportunity to display their impressive claws. I will also add that I admired Clint Ramos' set, featuring a series of walls covered with photorealistic depictions of trees, which are backlit by the always adept lighting designer, Jason Lyons, in a variety of colors. Paul Tazewell's costumes range from some of the most gleefully tacky casual wear to be seen on stage in some time to each character's idea of just the right thing to wear to a major awards ceremony. Lindsay Jones' original music and sound design include a most amusing use of the Silentó hit, "Watch Me," as the background for a riotous demonstration of the theory that white people simply cannot dance.

And I can say with full confidence that, even if Barbecue takes nearly a full act before it fully roars to life, O'Hara has pulled off a dazzling sleight of hand that makes any number of deadly accurate points about the social industry that produces our perceptions of race and myths of self-invention. Not only is Barbecue filled with surprises; each of them packs a wicked sting. -- David Barbour

(9 October 2015)

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