'Barbecue': Theater Review
Playwright Robert O'Hara considers how family stereotypes and racial politics clash with reality during a raucous drug intervention in this Public Theater premiere.
The barbecue in the first act of Barbecue isn't actually a barbecue. But that's OK, because the O'Mallerys, the family having the cookout, four sisters and a brother of varying white trashiness, aren't always a family. Also, trashiness aside, they may or may not be white. Or, vaguely more precisely, they're both a family and not a family, both white and not white, and their gathering, with burgers on a grill in the park, both is and is not a barbecue. It's Schrodinger's family, flame-broiling his cat.
In Robert O'Hara's very funny, recurringly surprising, and ultimately fairly thoughtful new play, which alternates between slapstick and serious, nearly everything is doubled, mirrored, multilayered, at least slightly dishonest. There are some truths, we think, but they are few and far between, and the truths aren't much more important than the artifice. This is a look at an America where real-life behaviors take their cues from reality TV, a genre that, moniker notwithstanding, only glancingly takes its cues from reality. It's an examination of a new historical moment, filmed, framed, televised and tweeted, in which everything is performance.
Barbecue introduces us to siblings James T., Lillie Ann, Marie and Adlean. They are gathered at picnic tables in a local park for a faux celebration to which they’ve invited their sister Barbara, also known as Zippity Boom. (James T., in an opening monologue, explains the nickname: "When she taste liquor, she go Zippity. Boom! Period.")
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Zippity Boom has a crack problem, and the barbecue — because Barbara loves a barbecue party — is the way they'll lure her to an intervention. Lillie Anne, who is presumably the eldest sister and certainly the most pulled-together (and controlling) of the bunch, knows how to stage an intervention, because she's seen it on TV. Things go rather less well than hoped for; soon enough Zippity Boom is tased, tied to a tree, silenced with duct tape, and listening as her siblings plead, not quite whole-heartedly, for her to get help. Oh yeah: And even while demanding Barbara's sobriety, James T. keeps crushing beers, Adlean is popping pills, and Marie swigs from a jug of Jack Daniels.
But Barbecue offers more inconsistencies than just in its characters' opinions on inebriation. When we first meet the O'Mallerys, they’re a white family, with Becky Ann Baker (Girls) as the matronly Lillie Anne. When the scene shifts, they're black, with Baker replaced by Kim Wayans. A scene later, white again. And then once again black. They're the same characters, in essentially the same costumes — Marie, white or black, Arden Myrin or Heather Alicia Simms, is in skin-tight leopard print and a hot-pink die job — with the same mannerisms, relationships, and language. (The character-defining costumes are by Paul Tazewell.) They just shift races.
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You could read this as a dose of metatheatrical commentary, about the essential similarity of all people; or, contra Tolstoy, the similarities of unhappy families; or most sharply, the enveloping, transracial pathologies afflicting the American underclass. Instead, in a great moment at the end of the first act, you will discover that O'Hara's point is something else entirely. You will most likely hoot out loud at the revelation. (The Public Theater's press department has asked that reviewers not reveal this twist, and, given those hoots, I'll comply.) You'll return for the second act, eager to see where things are going.
They get weirder, but also more recognizable.
As O'Hara clarifies the things that didn't quite add up in the first act, he adds new, if more clarified, layers of complexity. The world becomes less surreal but no more straightforward. Where there's an absurd, half-hearted family nae nae in the first act (it’s a party, after all), there’s an equally absurd, if somehow less surprising, animal-impersonating "grounding" ritual in the second. If anything, the duplicity grows. There are invocations, though not by name, of James Frey's literary career, of Madonna's reinvention as a British aristocrat, of any number of celebrities' backstories.
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Director Kent Gash keeps the overlaid stories humming along while also keeping them just so slightly inscrutable. If some bits of business in O'Hara’s script — an accidentally overheard conversation, for example — seem a bit too convenient, there's eventually a strong suggestion that this is the point. The doubled white-and-black cast provides subtly different takes on the same characters, most notably in Tamberla Perry's magisterial and conniving black Barbara and Samantha Soule's manipulative but steely white version of the same. And it's worth noting Clint Ramos' clearing-in-a-forest set, which is both beautifully bucolic and also quite clearly a manufactured simulacrum of the same thing.
You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, they used to say. These days, Barbecue asks: Why wouldn't you?
Cast: Becky Ann Baker, Marc Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas, Kim Wayans.
Director: Kent Gash
Playwright: Robert O'Hara
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music and sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Presented by the Public Theater