- Photo by Stan Barouh
The show is called Bootycandy, but don't expect Robert O'Hara's newest play to be sweet.
"It's a very caustic experience," says Woolly Mammoth's director of artistiv development, Miriam Weisfeld. "You might find yourself confused or provoked, but you want to continue because it's really fucking funny."
"Fucking" and "funny" are two words that are particularly relevant to the season-ender for Woolly Mammoth's year of "A striptease of the subconscious." Bootycandy is 10 vignettes about sex and race, loosely based on O'Hara's upbringing. Some of his characters include a little boy whose mother calls his penis "bootycandy," a preacher who comes out in front of his entire congregation, two men explicitly describing their desire for each other, and a workshop of black playwrights trying to make themselves known for anything but their race.
O'Hara "deconstructs stereotypes and fractures the narrative into a bunch of different experiences," says Weisfeld. "[Bootycandy] explores language and identity and different facets of gay African-American identity. It plays meta-theatrical games."
One of those meta-theatrical games is the aforementioned workshop in scene six. In it, four black playwrights gather with a white moderator to discuss their work, but resent that the conference proports to advance their careers, when in reality, it is tokenism. The playwrights in the scene, each representing an element of O'Hara's personality, are revealed to have "authored" the previous vignettes Bootycandy.
WRITER 1: I'm working on a play about a preacher... who comes out of the closet...
WRITER 1: In front of his congregation...
WRITER 1: In a dress...
MODERATOR: Ohhhkay... Well... you don't actually think anyone's going to produce that play do you?
WRITER 1: No.
MODERATOR: Good. Um... (turns to WRITER 2) And you?
WRITER 2: You don't even know my name do you?
WRITER 2: Michael.
MODERATOR: Michael. Strange name for a woman.
MODERATOR: Right. What are you working on?
WRITER 2: I'm writing a play about a woman on the phone. With some
other women. Talking about pussy.
MODERATOR: What does that have to do with race?
WRITER 2: What does pussy have to do with race?
The workshop is based on O'Hara's personal experiences, as well, and is a way for him to push back on the notion of reducing playwrights to a single characteristic, as well as to push the boundaries of a traditional theater's comfort zone (seeing as the play about the black gay preacher, a previous scene in Bootycandy, has effectively been produced). As the white moderator struggles to understand their work, the playwrights finally throw him an analogy he can understand: Autoerotic asphyxiation. It's pain and pleasure at the same time, and that's what O'Hara wants.
"What Robert is hoping to accomplish with this scene is to point out how it's silly for all of us – and I include Woolly – to congratulate ourselves for being inclusive and diverse, to invite all African-American or Latino or lesbian playwrights we can find to a conference, and congratulate ourselves for including them, while applying this monolithic label to understand their work," says Weisfeld. "We're big fans of artists who will challenge us and keep us honest. That's the most exciting thing about working with Robert. He says, 'really, you're thing to defy convention?' and says, 'will you produce this on your mainstage, instead of inviting me to a conference?'"
The scene is also a bit of a breather for the audience, who get a chance to process some of the heavy stuff they've witnessed thus far.
"[O'Hara] allows the white character to articulate what might be going on in audience's mind," says Weisfeld. "[The moderator] is trying, he's genuinely trying to figure out what to get out of these experiences. It's a chance for us to acknowledge that a lot of these scenes might make particularly white audiences uncomfortable. … It's a chance to satirize his experience as a writer, but also acknowledge questions in the audience's minds, and that it's OK to wonder those questions, and to see the characters through lens of their own experience."
Still, Weisfeld acknowledges that she's not sure how the audience will react to the world-premiere play. For the most part, Woolly's subscribers know what they're getting themselves into, having already seen the boundary-pushing In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play and Oedipus el Rey. Still, Weisfeld anticipates that, despite Bootycandy's minimal nudity, there could be a few walk-outs due to the graphic way that the show discusses sex.
"If someone walks out because they're having trouble with it, there's a house manager or intern in the lobby who's able to engage with them about what's difficult, and we capture that information," says Weisfeld, who reads all of those reports and is eager to learn from patrons the answer to this question: "It's just a play, why does it have so much power to get under someone's skin?" Besides, says Weisfeld, she'd rather have someone be angry about a Woolly show than bored.
"That is so much better than someone sitting through our show and falling asleep, and taking an expensive nap on a Saturday night," she says. "We couldn't do this without people who come in with this adventurous spirit … That's what new work is about. We can't do that alone, we've gotta do it with people brave enough to do it with us."