Robert O'Hara, one of the most interesting contemporary American, playwrights, is fascinated with cultural collisions. In BARBECUE, his latest play, fully of dizzying, surprising reversals, he turns the tables on a common trope of American theater, particularly musical theater, the appropriation of African-American culture by white cultural institutions and gives us a bizarre depiction of an African-American taking a piece of white popular culture and turning it into something that gains her the greatest award Hollywood has to offer. But what does one make of an African-American singing star-turned-film actress who claims that because she is now a big star, she can no longer be considered Black? She has risen above racial categories. This film star has obviously never heard Viola Davis's recent Emmy Award acceptance speech.
It is difficult to discuss O'Hara's play without being a spoiler. We begin at a family barbecue at a state park somewhere in middle-America. The dysfunctional family is what can be called white trash. Drink and drugs seem to be a family problem, particularly for Barbara. The family outing is supposed to be an intervention to get her to go to a rehab clinic in Alaska to give up drugs and booze. After a blackout, the saga continues, but with a Black family. You'll have to see the play to understand.
O'Hara's BARBECUE is both hilarious and thought provoking. Yes, it's about family dynamics. It's also about celebrity, American myths of success and racial and gender identity. It's about labels we impose on others and labels we impose on ourselves. Above all, it's great fun. O'Hara's theatrical world is always a bizarre cartoon-like distortion of reality.
Director Kent Gash and the large cast has given the play an excellent, perfectly paced production. Clint Ramos's set is both convincingly realistic and artificial--perfect for the play. Paul Tazewell's costumes are funny when they need to be and totally appropriate.