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Editorial Review

Robert O'Hara's ‘Booty Candy’ at Woolly Mammoth

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On a beach near Cancun, a lesbian couple participates in a new ceremonial style of Mexican divorce. Ridding themselves of each other in the eyes of God (and gays), they sullenly reverse the spell of their marriage vows: “Wherever you go, I will not be,” both women in white promise each other.

“And I would like to add,” the more petite one announces solemnly, “that you go [epithet] yourself.”

It’s an unexpectedly uproarious punch line to the end of a civil union, intoned expertly by Jessica Frances Dukes in Robert O’Hara’s funny, smutty and, on the whole, enticingly subversive “Booty Candy.” The world-premiere evening of playlets, directed by the playwright and performed by a well-nigh perfect cast of five at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is a toxically satiric portrait of American life, as it is experienced by someone who is black and gay.

As such, the show owes a transparent debt to director-writer George C. Wolfe and his “The Colored Museum,” another toxically satiric set of playlets, unveiled 25 years ago at New York’s Public Theater. O’Hara is a disciple of Wolfe’s: An early time-bending play of O’Hara’s, “Insurrection: Holding History,” was staged at the Public in the mid-1990s, while Wolfe was in charge.

You can see, though, a generational progression in the topics dominating each of the evenings. Whereas Wolfe’s skits made scathing sport of the emblematic aspects of culture that set blacks apart — a parody of “A Raisin in the Sun” remains vivid in memory 21 / 2 decades on — O’Hara surveys a terrain in which the incongruities of being gay in a black world today make for the more fertile material. It’s a world in which being black itself no longer seems to conjure instant outsider status.

O’Hara sardonically explores the habit of concealment: This may not constitute groundbreaking stuff, but the treatment of it is consistently well handled. Thus, in “Happy Meal,” a sulky teenager (the smashing Phillip James Brannon) endures a profane tongue lashing from his clueless mother (a terrifically histrionic Laiona Michelle) and stepfather (the similarly superb Lance Coadie Williams) over his effeminate mannerisms and preference for the literature of Jackie Collins. “You need to start bending your knees when you pick up stuff,” Williams observes.

In “Dreaming in Church,” a minister of operatic Sunday finger-wagging, played to magnetic effect, again by Williams, discloses some sartorial idiosyncrasies that put a congregation more in mind of Diana Ross than Deuteronomy. And in the less-lighthearted “The Last Gay Play,” two gay men consent to a tryst with an unstable straight man (an excellent Sean Meehan) for no reason other than to humiliate him. “It felt good, didn’t it, to get back at one of them?” says Brannon, portraying one of the gay men.

Departing from caricature more emphatically than in the other sketches — including a ripe one in which two sisters argue by phone over giving a baby a ridiculously stigmatizing first name — “The Last Gay Play” conveys a far less savory reality than a lot of what has come before. Perhaps that’s why the dramatist leaves it unfinished: The actors themselves are made to rebel against the premise once they discover it’s not based on real events — as if they think we don’t want the imagination of this playwright going there.

In previous satires such as “Insurrection” and his 2009 Woolly premiere, “Antebellum,” O’Hara expressed an impatience with conventional plotting: His tendency was to overburden the plays with time-traveling contrivances, absurd coincidences and exaggerated personalities. The short-form “Booty Candy” allows him to retain his streak of outrageousness, but the switching of gears proceeds far more persuasively.

Set designer Tom Kamm mounts O’Hara’s theatrical universe on a shiny floor, upon which sits a sparkly, curtained proscenium arch. The telegenic vestiges of a variety show also include cut-out panels in the arch, for a style of gag reminiscent of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Kate Turner-Walker provides a full rack’s worth of outfits in sync with the evening’s swings of mood: the witty get-ups for the uncivilly union-dissolving couple in “Ceremony” being particularly smart.

In the manner of such evenings, O’Hara’s playlets do not all rise to the same level of sharpness. But there’s more than enough talent on display here to please an adventurous crowd, for the assorted confections of “Booty Candy” hold onto their tart flavors mighty juicily.

Written and directed by Robert O’Hara. Sets, Tom Kamm; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Lindsay Jones; dramaturg, Miriam Weisfeld. About 2 hours 15 minutes.

Woolly Mammoth's sweet season closer: 'Bootycandy'

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, May 26, 2011

How much stock can you put in a name?

When Woolly Mammoth Theatre Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz went looking for a work to conclude a rather unzipped season that began with "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play," he homed in on one show he reasoned would make the perfect bookend.

Its title was "Bootycandy," a series of 10 scathingly funny, raw microplays by New York-based playwright and director Robert O'Hara. And Shalwitz had to have it.

There was only one problem.

"Very quickly after we committed," Shalwitz recalls, "[O'Hara] said, 'I'm throwing out half of the plays.' We went from a whole play to a half of a play."

Woolly's choice to remain on board "was nuts," O'Hara said with a laugh during a break from rehearsals recently. "I kept going, 'You know I have no play.' "

The show produced in New York in 2008 was called "Booty Candy," but, O'Hara said, was just an evening of short pieces.

The playwright wanted to begin again. "I said, 'You're going to give me a slot? And I can do anything I want?' "

Well, almost anything. Shalwitz insisted that while the show would close the season, the name "Bootycandy" -- like "The Vibrator Play," an advertisement in and of itself -- that was nonnegotiable.

Shalwitz had faith in O'Hara, having seen him work his voodoo at Woolly in 2009's "Antebellum," which blended the story of a Jewish family in the "Gone With the Wind" South with that of the goings-on in a Nazi camp.

Unlike "Antebellum," O'Hara's new play is part autobiographical, drawing on his experiences as a black, gay playwright, represented by the character Sutter.

" 'Bootycandy,' " Shalwitz said, "just kept speaking to me, because it was so good, and so funny, and so daring in the things it was trying to deal with."

To develop the play into a mainstage show, Shalwitz urged O'Hara to dig out a few characters and give them new emphasis, to get rid of others and to more overtly connect the pieces.

Slowly, "Bootycandy" grew again. The sketches include a biting comedy bit about a conference of black playwrights; another about an ill-advised baby name; and yet another that draws on memories of "The Cosby Show."

But now, each vignette works together, the playwright says. Characters reemerge in a way that loosely suggests the passage of years. (O'Hara concedes that the show reflects his formative years, from the euphemism "bootycandy," which came straight from his parents, to references to "Good Times" and the Cosbys.)

" 'Bootycandy,' " he says, examines "how we speak about sex in public and private, in religious and secular situations, with family, with friends, with lovers. Each piece extends the storyline and changes what we thought we just saw."

Even though the premiere is days away, O'Hara marvels at the opportunity.

"I feel honored that they would trust me to do that," he said. "But I also feel like more artists should be allowed that. More artists should be told that: 'Look, we think that you're great, and interesting and fun, and a little bit wacky. But we're here to support you.' "