September 20, 2014

Why "Bootycandy" Seems Stale to Me

Judging by the raves it’s been getting, everybody seems to be eating up Bootycandy, Robert O’Hara’s satirical look at growing up black and gay. Everybody that is but me.

Sitting in the audience at Playwrights Horizon, where the show is running through Oct. 19, I had a feeling of déjà vu: been there, seen it before—  and seen it done better.

Coming of age plays about black gay men are becoming a genre unto themselves. We’ve recently had the fine works of Tarell Alvin McCraney and Colman Domingo. And next month will bring the world premiere of While I Yet Live, an autobiographical drama by Billy Porter, who won a Tony for starring in Kinky Boots, which deals with some of the same issues. 
O’Hara, who also directs, knows his way around the genre after having directed the world premieres of the plays by McCraney and Domingo. And like those earlier works, his Bootycandy is a bittersweet memoir based on the life of the guy who wrote it and accompanied by a soundtrack of music from the ‘70s.

I'll admit the show made me laugh at times but it seems to have pretensions of doing more than that. Which is where it falls down for me because Bootycandy doesn’t offer any original insights into the still-difficult passage of growing up as an effeminate boy in a working-class black world, except for some monologs that very graphically describe gay sex. 
Borrowing more than a page from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 classic The Colored Museum and the '90s-era TV sketch show “In Living Color,” Bootycandy is a series of skits that poke fun at various aspects of the African-American experience (one segment is even called “The Last Gay Play,” echoing The Colored Museum's “The Last Mama on the Couch”). 

But the objects this play chooses to mock have now been so often parodied—the black preacher dressing down his congregation, the swivel-necked, round-the-way girls putting down everyone else—that they’ve become clichés. And Bootcandy doesn’t find a way to make them fresh. 

Flipping back and forth between farce, drama and even tragedy, the play's scenes are also uneven in quality and tone—and nearly all go on far too long. The playwright himself says that he basically stitched together a group of unrelated pieces when the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in D.C. asked him for a play (click here to read about his process).  And the rough seams show.
O’Hara attempts to cover them up and to add some underlying meaning with a postmodern twist at the end of the first act. But even it calls to mind a similar—and better rendered—scene in Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark in which a panel of academics show up to comment on how African-Americans are portrayed in movies and plays. 

But none of this carping should take away from the fact that the hardworking cast O’Hara has assembled is terrific, particularly Phillip James Brannon, who plays the O’Hara stand-in, here called Sutter. 
I’ve seen Brannon in smaller parts before, but here he gets the chance to show off how truly talented he is, adeptly playing the character from his bewildering boyhood days (the source of the play’s comedy) into his more troubled manhood (the cause of the shakier dramatic moments).

Not far behind is Lance Coadie Williams, who so seamlessly transformed himself into five completely different characters that the play was halfway over before I realized those parts were being played by the same guy.
My theatergoing buddy Bill says I'm being too hard on the rest of the show and that O'Hara just wants the audience to have a good time. That's probably true and everyone in the audience at the performance we attended seemed to be doing just that. And, as I said, I joined in some of the laughter. Yet, it left a hollow taste in my mouth. 

No comments: