BWW Reviews: BOOTYCANDY is Subversively Funny and Dramatically Intriguing
At first glimpse, playwright/director Robert O'Hara's subversively funny and dramatically intriguing new play, Bootycandy, seems like it's going to be a night of sketch comedy; pretty uproarious sketch comedy at that.
The opening scene, styled in 1980s urban sitcom manner, has grown up Phillip James Brannon playing an adolescent who's crazy about Michael Jackson and confused about sex. His abrasive, tough-loving mom (Jessica Frances Dukes) isn't very helpful in answering his questions about body parts and sex acts but the scene does explain the meaning of the play's title.
O'Hara then jumps to a sermon monologue featuring Lance Coadie Williams as the kind of funky minister Flip Wilson used to play on television; all street-smart with musical vocal inflections and slick body language. His sermon addresses concerns by congregation members that, "some of our choir boys are... a little freaky," and if you know anything about Flip Wilson you might be able to guess where this scene is going.
Next we get Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas, who, aided by Clint Ramos' sight-gag costumes, play a quartet of ladies having loud phone conversations the whole block can hear, prompted by a woman's choice to name her baby girl Genitalia.
But the mood of Bootycandy switches to subtler realism in the next scene, set in a nightclub, where a twentysomething gay man (Brannon) negotiates a sexual tryst with a straight man, one who is not exactly a stranger, looking to experiment (Jesse Pennington, who plays all the white characters). Audience members who didn't read their programs in advance may not be immediately aware that Brannon, the only actor in the piece playing just one character, is now an adult version of Sutter, the adolescent from the first scene.
Next we see Pennington as Clint, who is waiting alone at a bus stop late at night, trying to talk his way out of being mugged by an unseen male. From the racial stereotypes he brings up you can assume the unseen guy is black and Clint offers friendly reminders of how his white privilege ensures that his assailant will be treated especially harsh by the police and the justice system.
The pieces of the evening begin tying together at the end of the first act, with Pennington as a representative of a theatre company hosting a playwright's symposium where he awkwardly exoticizes the four African-American writers on his panel (including Sutter), who react with stony distain. An exchange where he asks one of his guests about her name had the audience erupting with laughter at a joke that was both hilarious and horrific.
Sutter, of course, is a stand-in for O'Hara in this collage of experiences from growing up gay and black. Even when he's not on stage, it can be presumed that Sutter is witnessing every scene, like the second act's lesbian non-commitment ceremony, where a couple that was never allowed to be legally married take back the vows they made at their commitment ceremony. Or maybe the character wrote every scene?
The second act brings us second halves of the first act's events, including a look at Sutter's family life as his sexual identity, as well as his obsession with Michael Jackson, grows and his mother and stepdad try steering him away from musical theatre and Jackie Collins novels and toward sports. In another episode, the grown Sutter decides to get some revenge on the straight white guys who keep hitting on him.
The language is lively and sexually blunt and the strong ensemble smoothly navigates through the contrasting styles of the piece, but the play's final scene, Sutter's sweet, sentimental visit with his grandmother, and the artifice-breaking moment that precedes it, do not effectively cap off the evening.
Still, Bootycandy is a fresh and engaging work, as entertaining as it is gut-punching.