George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, an Off Broadway hit in 1986, was groundbreaking in the way a gravedigger is. Amid brilliant satirical confetti, it declared an end to a certain strain of black theater writing exemplified by a sketch he titled “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” taking off on the domestic piety of A Raisin in the Sun. Now the wittiest of the post-Wolfe provocateurs, Robert O’Hara, opens the season at Playwrights Horizons with the insanely entertaining Bootycandy, a play whose very title (a euphemism for penis that’s way more embarrassing than the word it replaces) would give Raisin’s Lena Younger palpitations. But then, O’Hara has no interest in earnest accommodation and stylistic comfort. As the play opens, the mama figure isn’t on the couch (she’s in a short skirt, putting on lipstick) and she isn’t trying to straighten out an aimless son whose “brow is heavy from 300 years of oppression” (as Wolfe put it). Rather, she’s trying to straighten out a proto-gay preschooler who has too many questions about personal hygiene and blow jobs.
Wolfe’s kaleidoscopic assault exploded the familiar (and reductive) tropes of black cultural representation. O’Hara, recognizing that the job could not be improved upon, is after something else. Bootycandy is basically a spiritual autobiography through satire, loosely tracking the life of a gay black boy named Sutter from childhood through professional success as a playwright. But instead of offering naturalistic scenes that dramatize meaningful steps on Sutter’s path, O’Hara gives us a collection of skits that play like a chitlin circuit Hee-Haw. There’s that opening, with Sassy Black Mom and Naïvely Flaming Son reappropriating stereotypes both black and gay without even bothering to discredit them. After a quick musical break and a spin of Clint Ramos’s perfect turntable set, we’re in church — maybe Sutter’s church, but maybe not — for the Preacher Bit, in which Reverend Benson finds the lord in fabulous drag. Next is a modern variant of the Dialect Scene, mercilessly mocking (or subtly defending?) a woman who has named her baby Genitalia Lakeitha Shalama Abdul. (Her first two kids were called Avis and Cicada.) Such a full-on embrace of minstrelsy (and its homophobe equivalent) would be cause for a riot if the playwright weren’t black and gay; since he is, the result, while still explosive, feels like a liberation.
A liberation into what, though? Some of the episodes (the proscenium is shaped like an old TV) don’t seem to have anything to do with Sutter, and the ones that clearly do are so vastly different in tone, it’s hard to settle into a groove of interpretation. The scene called “Drinks and Desire” (the titles are projected, vaudeville-style, above the set) consists of a series of painful conversations, entirely realistic, between Sutter and a straight white friend who wants to have sex with him. It even includes a Shocking Revelation, handled as smoothly as in the most conversational Neil LaBute play. There’s nothing remotely funny about it; it’s merely beautifully written. But then we get a monologue that seems wholly unrelated, an Urban Crime Scene in which no crime is committed.
By the time you reach that Urban Crime scene, called “Mug,” you may feel that O’Hara’s scattershot approach is no longer hitting its marks. But that’s when the playwright pulls back and reveals the bigger design. In the act one closer, called “Conference,” Sutter appears on a panel of black playwrights convened by a well-meaning theater company for a public discussion. We now learn that “Mug” is a play he wrote, as the other preceding scenes were written by the others on the panel. Meanwhile, the completely clueless white moderator, unable to fit any of them into his notion of black writing, keeps wandering into horrible faux pas:
MODERATOR: So what are you all working on, Kerry — uh Terry — O’Malley, by the way I’ve often wondered, how exactly did you get the name Terry O’Malley — seems odd for a black playwright to have the last name O’Malley how did that come about?
WRITER 1: Slavery.
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you: The insulting and misbegotten conference is presented as if it were an actual offering of Playwrights Horizons. “Are these subscribers?” one of the panelists asks, looking at the actual audience. The moderator mordantly responds: “Not for long.”
That’s funny, but too easy. And though I’m white and gay, and thus may have only a partial-view seat at this party, it seems to me that O’Hara is trying to eat his cake and spit it out, too. Both here and in a second-act scene of chilling fury, in which Sutter and a friend may or may not be involved in the kind of violent act that “Mug” sidestepped, the playwright gets dangerously close to the place where satire implodes. Bootycandy remains, at almost every moment, completely engaging; O’Hara directs his material and a great cast, led by Phillip James Brannon as Sutter, effectively. Even the longueurs have something to offer, as when a predictable skit about a lesbian marriage-dissolution ceremony lets the preacher offer this homily: “In the Bible, Cicely Tyson wrote so beautifully about the power of hatred in her First Book of Letters to the Hobbits: ‘Get your own milk and sugar, muthafucka.’”
But in the end, neither the satire nor the straight-up drama is allowed a chance to thrive; I couldn’t help feeling that this was an unconscious strategy to repel criticism of either, in the same way that some animals evolve ingenious anti-predator adaptations to make themselves inedible. Or perhaps it was deliberate. In “Conference,” the subject is raised explicitly.
MODERATOR: I’m wondering what you are hoping the audience comes away with after seeing your work?
SUTTER: I think the audience should choke.
MODERATOR: To death?
WRITER 1: I don’t want them to digest it easily.
WRITER 2: It wasn’t easy to write it and it shouldn’t be easy to experience it.
WRITER 3: Exactly. It should not melt in yo’ mouth.
SUTTER: The work should be work.
Well, that’s one kind of theater. But it seems to me that Bootycandy is at its considerable best when we have no idea what it’s trying to do, and don’t feel bullied to find out.
Bootycandy is at Playwrights Horizons through October 12.