|Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene,|
Maurice Emmanuel Parent & John Kuntz in "Bootycandy"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)
If you're in the market for a show that will “shake your booty”, you need look no further than Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy, now being presented in its New England premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company. The tagline the playwright proposes says it all: “everyone is welcome, no one is safe”. This work is not a play in the strictest sense, but a series of sketches in which Maurice Emmanuel Parent plays the central character, who grows up, gay and black, before our very eyes. When it premiered off Broadway in 2014, it was named as one of the top ten plays of the year by the New York Times. As the title implies, referencing the slang term for the male sexual organ, this is not intended for general consumption, and not just because it displays the full monty. As the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault accurately describes it, it's “a bold show that breaks all the rules” governing political correctness about sexual, racial, and cultural stereotypes. Perhaps only the fact that O'Hara, the director (Summer L. Williams) and the star are themselves African American rescues this work from crossing some lines. It obviously owes a great deal to another relatively recent sketch-filled “play” by George C. Wolfe, which O'Hara has admitted in interviews, stating that it is “absolutely a part of the legacy of The Colored Museum...(from which he) stole everything possible that I could”. While it's doesn't quite reach that level, it's a clever and telling depiction of a subculture that will be alien to many theatergoers. Covering the period between the1970's to the present, it features a small cast that also includes Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene, and John Kuntz, who among them portray some twenty-one characters. Only Parent remains the same person, Sutter, at three stages in his life: in his youth, as a teen and ultimately as an adult in his 40's.
In the first brief prologue of sorts, the title of the play (in case you didn't already know) is disclosed, as Sutter's mom explains it all for you. There follows a scene in a black church when the minister (Davenport) sermonizes about gossip from the “I heard” folk and references the terms “screw and nut” about heterosexual intercourse that he describes as a “teachable moment”, before he reveals he has more up his sleeve than we first realize. The bit goes on a tad too long with a predictable payoff, but Davenport carries it off so well it works. That can't be said for the next scene, a conversation among four women on the phone, about naming a child Genitalia; it's almost unintelligible with respect to the dialects used, and way too long for its final punchline. Next is a series of blackouts between Sutter and the man who has married Sutter's sister, which pushes the envelope further, as they discover they have more in common than first meets the eye. Then, in a most curious brief scene, there's a “muggable moment” that seems detached from the work at large. But the final scene in the first “act” features a meta-conference of playwrights, in a Q & A segment that manages to tie together, more or less, the previous sketches, adding that the play should be provocative and “should not melt in your mouth”.
The second “act” is a flashback to Sutter's teen years wherein his parents caution him to take up sports, stop reading Jackie Collins novels and drop his penchant for appearing in high school musicals. It's perhaps the truest scene, in which his mom asks “have you lost your mind in real life?”. Next up is an overly long yet hilarious celebration of non-commitment, a lesbian divorce between the aforementioned Genitalia and her soon-to-be-ex, Intifada. It precedes the most serious of the sketches, a three person game of truth or dare which ends badly for one of the players. The final scene, between Sutter and his Old Granny in a nursing home, again manages to tie together a lot of the prior sketches, with Davenport giving his all as the old lady and Parent doing a smashing Michael Jackson turn, silver glove in hand, declaring that if men would only connect sexually, “there'd be peace in the world”.
Noble sentiments that these are, there is a subtext to this work that reflects the reality noted in some Human Rights Campaign literature, namely that “the black church, the oldest institution and pillar of the black community, has historically dictated the community's stance on homosexuality-either you don't talk about it, or you condemn it”. As the playwright commented with respect to the all-white Oscar nominations, “you can't say oh, that just happened...there's a process”. He has also stated that all of the scenes are based on facts, which is a sobering thought beneath the satire. But O'Hara's aim is obviously to entertain while he instructs. Thanks to Williams' s direction and the skilled timing of the ensemble, with its often broad but focused acting (difficult to achieve), it succeeds on both levels. Every member of the cast is superb, but special attention must be paid to Parent, who demonstrates once again how incredibly versatile he is. Also remarkable are the efforts of the creative team, from the gaily colorful set by Jenna McFarland Lord, to the cool period Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, to the effective Lighting Design by Jen Rock and Sound Design by David Wilson.
As for Sutter, his may not be the butchest booty on the block, but he's undeniably (and at his core) an unforgettable protagonist. As with any series of sketches, some are better than others, but in the end there are belly laughs aplenty (often depending on just how street-smart one already is) and some revelations that will stay with you long after the last guffaw. It's a hearty and healthy mix of the zany and the sobering, and what more could anyone ask?
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