Don’t bother to look up the definition of “Bootycandy,” the outrageous title of Robert O’Hara’s wild comedy about growing up black and gay. The most colorful words are nearly always missing from the dictionary, as Sutter, the young protagonist of this rambunctious play, discovers early on.
Sutter isn’t like the other boys. His Michael Jackson obsession is largely taken in stride, though his mother doesn’t approve of his elaborate moonwalk routine whenever they’re out in public.
But a few years later, when Sutter reports that a strange man has been following him home from the library, his parents lay down the law: No more reading Jackie Collins novels at the dinner table or acting out musicals at night in his bedroom or running to his grandma’s house on the weekend.
His parents assume that he must be doing something to attract this kind of interest, and so Sutter is commanded to play sports. Any sport. And no more listening to Culture Club while washing the dishes or giggling in ecstasy through “Entertainment Tonight.”
“Bootycandy,” which enjoyed a much buzzed-about run last year at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, is a lively way of christening Celebration Theatre’s new home at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood. The venue is just down the block from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which makes it a fitting locale for a theater that has long dedicated itself to exploring the lives of the LGBT community.
Celebration’s co-artistic directors, Michael Matthews (who has staged “Bootycandy”) and actor Michael A. Shepperd (who plays crucial supporting roles in oversized drag) infuse the production with maximum flamboyance. At times the staging comes off as a reboot of the old sketch comedy television show “In Living Color,” but the work ultimately addresses serious concerns about intersectional identities and representation.
O’Hara grapples with the conflicts and contradictions inherent in being a member of more than one oppressed group. He’s also tackling the challenge of writing about this experience in a culture that expects its minority playwrights to follow paths prescribed by white institutions.
The play, divided into seemingly unrelated vignettes, eventually reveals a sneaky scheme: A panel of black playwrights has been assembled to talk about their work. Apparently, the scenes we’ve been watching have sprung from their unshackled imaginations.
Shepperd plays a preacher who’s being threatened by anonymous parishioners for turning the choir into a den of gay iniquity, but rather than shrink in terror he delivers a sermon with glamorous female garb peeking out from underneath his priestly attire. In a telephone bit, two actresses (Travina Springer and Julanne Chidi Hill) play a group of characters on the phone, one of whom is pregnant and determined to name her baby Genitalia. (Allison Dillard’s costumes whip up as many laughs as O’Hara’s writing, which admittedly could use some tightening.)
The play presented by a now grown-up Sutter is the dramatic center of “Bootycandy.” His theatrical contribution sustains the campy fun but mixes in self-hatred, violence and despair.
The scene in which Sutter and his friend (Shepperd) pick up a white guy (Cooper Daniels) whose deepest desire is to be humiliated is disturbing on multiple levels. Racism and homophobia short-circuit the frolicsome laughter.
The freely meta-theatrical nature of “Bootycandy” can make it difficult to maintain one’s bearings. But Anton Peeples’ anchoring portrayal of Sutter at every stage of his development is hauntingly pulled off.
O’Hara’s play is all the more powerful for being so fearlessly unpredictable. Celebration Theatre’s cast plays the comedy at full blast (at times almost deafeningly so) but still manages to honor the sorrow.