In comments to be found in the program for Strawdog Theatre’s production of his 2015 satire, Barbecue, Robert O’Hara identifies a TV genre he calls “watching white people do shit.” “There are all these reality shows: watch the white guy build a house, watch the white guy fix the car, watch the white guy go around the world and eat,” he says. “Or the show where you watch the white girl who is 16 and pregnant. I know 16-year-old black people who are pregnant. I don’t know why they don’t have a television show.”
Hard to see why anyone would want racial parity at the pregnant-teen-as-entertainment level—but the point is that the WWPDS phenomenon moved O’Hara to write this sly, iconoclastic play full of cool twists (some of which I’m about to discuss, so be warned). The brilliant first act opens on four grown siblings—Marie, Adlean, Lillie Anne, and James T—meeting at a picnic table in a public park, waiting for a fifth: Barbara, nicknamed “Zippity Boom” because of what happens when she gets high. They’ve gathered at Lillie Anne’s behest to run an intervention on Zippity Boom. She’s out of control.
Of course, none of the interveners are actually in control. O’Hara paints them as the purest white trailer trash—elevens on a ten-point Honey Boo Boo scale. Marie shows up (to an intervention!) with Jack Daniels in the large plastic bottle. Adlean has brought her grandkids, whom she leaves in the car and disciplines by screaming (“BOOTY, IF YOU DON’T STOP BOPPIN YO’ HEAD UP IN AND OUT OF MY GATDAMN SUNROOF I’M GONNA COME OVER THERE AND SLAP THE FUCK OUT OF YOU WITH A HAMMER TILL YOUR THROAT CLAP!” Google “throat clap” for the full effect.) Lillie Anne can lord it over the others because she’s the one with a GED.
The stage goes black before long, and when the lights come back up, the characters are black too. Same park. Same names, clothes, and relationships. Same diction and dependencies. Different race. The white cast/black cast alternations continue throughout act one, at the end of which we begin to see why. Act two isn’t nearly as wild, but it makes things a whole lot clearer. In the end, Barbecue is less about WWPDS per se than about the manipulation of race in American entertainment, which is to say American culture—a nasty, hilarious case study.
Director Damon Kiely and his double-five-member cast are more than up to it all. Celeste M. Cooper and Anita Deely supply the lowest of the low humor as the Maries—though only Cooper gets the splendid passage about how “middle easterners” put cancer in corn cans. Barbara Figgins and Deanna Reed-Foster both make canny, formidable Lillie Annes. Ginneh Thomas and Abby Pierce are cynically compatible pieces of work as the Zippity Booms. v