‘Bootycandy’ is the title of a series of bawdy comic sketches about growing up black and gay. The play is outrageous and cutting. Local All Things Considered host BJ Austin asked Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks about Stage West presenting the show’s area premiere — which he calls an unusual move. Their expanded conversation:
So Jerome, why’s that unusual?
It’s a sign of change, a real risk. For 37 years, Stage West has been a very fine but solidly mainstream theater. It’s definitely done some daring shows. But without a doubt, ‘Bootycandy’ is the most sexually explicit one. It’s a show that provocatively addresses the black gay experience — or at least parts of that experience, the wildly funny and chillingly lurid parts.
‘Bootycandy’ is not a conventional play – it’s more like “Loose-knit, Selected Scenes from a Life” by playwright-director Robert O’Hara. Who, by the way, will be in town next month directing the world premiere of the musical, ‘Bella‘ at the Dallas Theater Center. What we follow through these scenes is the sexual development of Sutter (Aaron Green). We follow him from pre-adolescence to adulthood But along the way, we also witness, say, the preacher of Sutter’s church, denouncing some of his congregation. They’ve been whispering about his ‘unmarried’ status. As the fiery preacher — actually, the four-alarm flaming preacher is closer to it — Djore Nance delivers a wicked, burn-down-the-church performance, defying his followers over their hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, Sutter’s parents recognize that their young son has all these ‘mannerisms’ they’d really rather not talk about. But when Sutter tells them a man’s been following him home from school, his mother (Liz Mikel) and stepfather (Djore Nance) leap into action. That’s a threat they can deal with. Clearly, Sutter has been sending out signals.
This school year, Mom declares, there’ll be NO musicals for him.
Son: But they’re doing ‘The Wiz.’
Mother: You’re not going to be in no damned ‘Wiz.’
Son: I’ve already been cast as the Scarecrow.
Mother: I don’t care if you’ve been cast as the Scarecrow’s mama!
Stepfather: You need to STOP playing those Whitney Houston albums! And stop talking on the phone for three hours every night to Brandon about ‘Star Search’! And start mowing the lawn twice a week.
Mother: And wash my car.
Stepfather: And stop playing so much Uno.
Mother: And do the dishes without listening to that Culture Club!
Stepfather: And take them stickers of DeBarge, Madonna and Prince and the Jacksons off the side of your bunkbed.
Mother: And stop watching “Entertainment Tonight’!
That’s hysterical. It’s like something out of that old TV show, ‘In Living Color.’
Right, very much like ‘In Living Color.’ ‘Bootycandy’ deals in similar caricatures, often caricatures in drag. There’s the overbearing black mother, the flamboyant cross-dresser. But it dishes out more profanity than was permissible for that FOX TV comedy pathbreaker back in the early ’90s. O’Hara pushes his satire of the black family and black religion into stratospheric outrageousness; the play’s mocking humor risks offending people, black and white, gay and straight. But there’s an ecstatic freedom in several scenes, where the humor just cuts loose and doesn’t seem to care who gets sliced. This only makes Aaron Green’s quiet, reluctant, almost emotionless Sutter feel like an outsider in his own skin, in his own family.
Yet ‘Bootycandy’ also has its extremely somber moments. As he matures, Sutter may have nothing in common with his relatives and have no rewarding connection to any institution or outside authority. But perhaps he can at least make a human connection with a fellow gay male. Someone.
Instead, he has a long and unhappy affair with a married white man, played by Justin Duncan.
Aaron Green: Please
Justin Duncan: OK
Green: Don’t call anymore
Green: Don’t write anymore
Green: You’re straight.
Duncan: I know.
Green: Stay that way.
Duncan: You tried once – a girl
Duncan: I want to be your friend, just friends
Green: Don’t call anymore. Don’t write anymore. . . . They need you.
So all this holds together?
The stitches get stretched and some even snap. Halfway through, there’s a conference of black playwrights. It’s a satire of academia and reviewers. O’Hara gets ‘meta-theatrical’ here. One implication is that the scenes we’ve watched so far were actually patched together by this bickering committee of different black writers. That would explain the wild swings in humor and style. The conference also seems like O’Hara’s proleptic defense of ‘Bootycandy.’ He’s anticipating and mocking the possible objections to the way he splashes acid on the black family, black religion, the gay community.
This writers’ conference also edges ‘Bootycandy’ out of the genre confines of ‘semi-autobiographical gay comedy’ into the highly self-conscious, cultural satire of George C. Wolfe’s ‘The Colored Museum.’ (Wolfe, in fact, was an early mentor of O’Hara’s.) But after O’Hara gets his quick shots in at theater critics, other black authors and clueless white academics, he drops the whole effort. In the end, it’s quick, it’s funny, but it’s mostly a digression into a little bit of score-settling.
What’s much more troublesome are the last few scenes. Sutter, previously sympathetic, becomes increasingly cold-hearted until he can simply shrug off the death of another man. O’Hara is saying, ‘This is what happens with ignorance and homophobia, all the misunderstandings across race and generations and gender identity.’ Sutter simply never finds the human connection he sought. So bravo to O’Hara – he shows us the damage, the wounds.
But then the show makes a last-second pivot into a celebration that seems pretty unearned. Director Akin Babatunde has done a terrific job keeping ‘Bootycandy’ on the rails, moving fast and funny. And he’s got a crackerjack cast, not just Nance – the play is a showcase for his over-the-top talents – but also Green, Duncan, Mikel and Natalie Wilson King (both Mikel and King are featured in a riotous reversal of a lesbian wedding ceremony).
But that ending?
Not even they can make emotional sense out of it.
There is one welcome scene toward the end. That’s when Sutter visits his grandmother (Djore Nance, being wickedly funny, again). It’s welcome because – even in drag, even with granny hustling for short ribs for lunch – it’s the closest thing we ever see of a quiet, somewhat conventional family life for Sutter. It’s not a tragic hook-up or a comic howlfest. These have been the only two functioning modes for black gay life in ‘Bootycandy.’ (O’Hara has credited his grandmother with helping raise him.) Thanks to Nance, it’s still outrageous, but his granny is also real, even heartfelt, and the scene is about the only time Aaron Green gets to be calm and kind as Sutter.
The term bildungsroman refers to a novel about growing up. Kunstlerroman refers to one about a young artist’s development. I don’t know any convenient German term for a play about a young black artist’s growing up that damages him. In effect, he fails to mature fully and that may explain his artistry. O’Hara is a satirist, so yes, his responsibility is to the knife, not the bandage. But the format of ‘Bootycandy’ is essentially autobiographical. It gets too dark to be dismissed as just sketch comedy: We get a courageous, unsettling portrait of a young black gay man’s life. But to be credible as a life, that portrait can’t be all pathology and penis jokes.
At the start, you called this a risk for Stage West? Why?
It’s not just ‘Bootycandy.’ The next season that Stage West announced has a slew of new plays by young writers. There’s not a familiar old favorite in the bunch. Three years after the death of Stage West’s founder Jerry Russell, executive producer Dana Schultes and artistic director Jim Covault are clearly steering the company in a new direction.
The risk in all this, of course, lies in alienating Stage West’s older subscribers. Obviously, the long-term results won’t be visible until next season. One play rarely makes or breaks a well-established company. But Saturday’s opening night audience for ‘Bootycandy’ was one of the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen at Stage West. I deliberately came back for Sunday’s matinee because with that performance, the theater started its new post-show discussions, and I wanted to see how the grey-hairs responded. And a surprising number stayed. They didn’t walk out at intermission; they actually stuck around. They wanted to talk about this new scandal, this hilarious firebomb their theater had just tossed at the honorable people of Fort Worth.
They seemed to take to this play – like candy.
A Stage West interview with director Akin Babatunde: