Bootycandy, written and directed by Robert O’Hara
First production of the Windy City Playhouse’s 2017 Season
Reviewed by Jean-Thomas Tremblay
A mountain of lime green Jell-O shots greeted theatergoers in the lobby of the Windy City Playhouse on Saint Patrick’s Day. A brash, acerbic, overly sweet welcome, and yet a relatively tame prelude to a bold production of Bootycandy, written and directed by Robert O’Hara.
The play contains what at first appear to be a series of vignettes linked, if narrowly, by common thematics: the expression of desire and the negotiation of gender and class identities in primarily black settings. Concluding the first act is a conference panel at which four exasperated African American playwrights indulge an exasperating white moderator by describing current works in progress—works that we, the audience, have just witnessed. If this mise en abyme comes across as somewhat of a gimmick, the second act cleverly mashes up the different storylines, in addition to abolishing the boundary between said storylines and the brand of meta-commentary on display in the conference scene. What emerges from this creative chaos is an impressionistic epic that covers the journey from childhood to adulthood of Sutter, a black gay man.
A different epic could be written about each actor’s journey through a performance. Krystel McNeil, Travis Turner, debrah neal, Osiris Khepera, and Rob Fenton, who are simply identified as Actors One, Two, Three, Four, and Five, jump from one part to the next, maintaining, over two and a half hours, a spectacular level of energy. Actors show conviction and enthusiasm as they navigate a script that switches back and forth between hysterical comedy and melodrama. All acting here is—it seems on purpose—a kind of overacting: the comedic moments are so broad and dramatic ones so histrionic that Bootycandy’s frequent tonal shifts are especially jarring. As one of the playwrights in the conference scene claims, art should induce discomfort; it should choke its audience.
In one scene, Sutter (Turner, masterful) and a closeted white man (Fenton) flirt and agree to have sex. The sultry vignette, in which Setter gets his coy interlocutor to state, in detail, the sex acts that he wants to perform, becomes increasingly unsettling as we learn that the closeted man is in fact Sutter’s brother-in-law, Roy, and that Sutter had his first sexual encounter as a teenager—a consensual encounter, he insists—with Roy’s own father.
We return to Sutter’s childhood in the second act. At the dinner table with his mother (neal), stepfather (Khepera, fiery), and sister (McNeil, memorable), Sutter, torn between fear and shame, reveals that a stranger, who we understand to be Roy’s father, followed him on the way home from the library. The scene veers into sardonic comedy when Sutter’s mother and stepfather list dozens of guidelines for appearing less effeminate, as if Sutter’s look and demeanor—he’s clad in Michael Jackson’s signature sparkling glove and “Thriller” jacket—warranted the harassment.
Bootycandy invites us to consider the many parts played by a given actor in relation to one another. Players not only move across registers, but also create voices that harmonize with each other. Actor Five’s parts are especially, and eerily, coordinated. Fenton, the only white individual in an otherwise all-black cast, becomes a figure of white lameness as he embodies a sequence of characters seeking validation from people of color.
Bootycandy takes place as much on the stage as in the audience. (A blessing, really: the backdrop of Katie-Bell Kenney’s uninventive set, the silhouette of a skyline onto which is projected the title of each scene, resembles the set of a 1980s late-night talk show.) Cast members repeatedly break the fourth wall, notably as they venture onto the runway that cuts across the main floor of the auditorium, set up like a cabaret. Actors listen and respond to the audience, compelling us to notice our own and each other’s reactions. Who’s still laughing uproariously when physical comedy has turned into cringe comedy? Who, on the North Side of Chicago, gets to laugh at a joke about a black person having to deal with white imbecility? And who gets to choke?
Don’t be fooled by the gelatinousness of the Jell-O shots. Bootycandy is a real jawbreaker.