by Sharon H. Chang
Barbecue, by satirist and playwright Robert O’Hara, is a play full of twisty turns, politics, tons of f-bombs, and the kind of dark comedy you’re not sure if you should laugh or grimace at. One (of only two) full-scale productions put on by Intiman Theatre for their 2017 season, the play is quick-witted, inappropriately appropriate, and an experience you won’t likely forget. It opened in Seattle last week at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, under the direction of Malika Oyetimein who previously directed O’Hara’s Bootycandy for Intiman in 2015.
O’Hara’s newest play proffers mirrored portrayals of the five dysfunctional O’Mallery siblings–a Black version and a White version–as they attempt to stage a barbecue/intervention for their crack-addicted youngest sister Barbara at a public park. However, the four intervention-planning siblings are also addicts, hooked on alcohol, meth, painkillers, cigarettes, pot, and ritalin. The intervention inevitably goes awry in all sorts of disturbingly comedic ways, culminating in the unsuspecting Barbara being gagged and tied to a pole.
Barbecue explores lessons on many things, not the least of which is race. In an interview with This Stage Magazine Robert O’Hara explained finding inspiration from the reality TV show Intervention in which White people were the only ones portrayed as addicted to drugs and in need of an intervention. Barbecue responds by using two identical casts of characters, one White and one Black, interchanging them from scene to scene so that the White cast is replaced by the Black cast and vice versa.
Yet the story is made entirely different just by the actors bodies and the color of their skin. The result is that the audience is challenged to look at how we are taught to view things like family, drugs, class, addiction, recovery, etc. through the prism of White supremacy.
O’Hara doesn’t stop there though. These lessons, and many more, continue through the second act and become infinitely more confounding and complex. It’s probably an understatement to say O’Hara, also creator of Insurrection: Holding History, has yet again penned something unpredictable that intends for watchers to sit in important uncertainty and leave touched by a deeper analysis. The production will likely upend all expectations in ways I won’t spoil here.
For me the most riveting scene came post-intermission when we’re introduced to the “real” Barbaras (played by the sharply talented Kamaria Harris and Eryn Joslyn) who are not addicts, anymore, and have actually become quite successful.
For over a half hour the two women have an incredible, snaky, embattled dialogue in which they challenge each other to peel back layer-upon-layer of the lies they have spun about themselves to achieve their respective successes. They push and push until all that’s left is a sore, raw pseudo-reality and the actual depth of their addictive deception.
I like this play in the sort of uncomfortable way anyone can like something that toys with addiction and humanity’s vices as major plot points. Barbecue is about lies within lies, stories within stories, where truth is an unfulfilling appetizer, an annoying afterthought, or forgotten footnote. O’Hara leverages the kind of upside-down-inside-out logic that characterizes addicts and addiction in real life.
And it’s a disorientation that certainly resonated with me given the kind of upside-down-inside-out logic of today’s political climate where the President routinely accuses the media of false truths while regularly delivering false truths himself. In interview, O’Hara called Donald Trump a “highly theatrical,” “absurd,” and “complete unadulterated fool.”
Indeed Barbecue also easily serves up biting commentary on America’s overall narcissistic addiction to sensational consumerism, rugged individualism, and fame and fortune at the cost of, really, anything: family, personal relations, integrity, one’s moral compass. The O’Mallery’s attempted intervention, which spirals in the first act, completely unravels in the second act.
Every character seems out for themselves in the end and I was left squirming, vexed, with a thorny set of questions. What makes a family? What constitutes us as a nation? How might we all be complicit in the things falling apart around us? And, when push comes to shove, is everyone just dysfunctional in some way?
O’Hara said that he does not want audiences to easily digest his plays and then go home; that he wants people to feel as though something has happened to them physically, to choke laughing. He has totally succeeded here. Though we discover the Barbaras do change, we never exactly know if it was Barbecue’s intervention that “worked” and got them there.
We discover a lot of other things instead. Meanwhile, my bodily and intellectual gag reflexes were on trigger repeat. It doesn’t feel good but it’s guaranteed to get you thinking, and thinking, and thinking some more. And it you want to find out more than that—you’ll have to come watch this play grill things up and get digestive upset for yourself.
Barbecue, directed by Malika Oyetimein, runs through June 25 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Tickets available at http://www.intiman.org/.
Featured image by Naomi Ishisaka