Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 50 / 14 December 2017
 

Interventions & complications galore

Theatre


Kehinde Koyejo, left, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, and Adrian Roberts play skeptical siblings drawn into an intervention for an out-of-control sister in "Barbecue" at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli
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On the first page of a little notebook, I made scribblings about the dialogue, characters, and situations in the first half of "Barbecue." On the second page, intended for Act II, there is nothing but blank space. Robert O'Hara's play now at San Francisco Playhouse is nearly impossible to review without making unconscionable revelations. While the first act has situations worthy of exploring, the second act pulls out the rug from beneath them. But to describe that second act in any detail would send the spoiler-alert system into overdrive.

San Francisco has seen two of O'Hara's most prominent works: "Insurrection: Holding History" at ACT, and "Bootycandy" at Brava Theatre Center. Both took on the complications of being black and gay in America, but a gay angle is only an incidental element in "Barbecue," which is more keen on exploring racial dynamics, but in a way that leaves it to the audience to examine its own reactions over any agenda.

The play, first seen in New York in 2015, opens as a family that can only described as white trash gathers in a lesser city park (set by Bill English), ostensibly for a barbecue. Balloons blown up to the size of lemons by a chain-smoking character are strewn about while her siblings make a loud but skeptical effort at creating a festive environment. Despite the characters' various dependencies on booze, weed, painkillers, and more, the barbecue is actually a ruse to draw another sister to an intervention for drug and alcohol addictions that trump anything the interveners may have.

The characters are humorously drawn with trailer-park dysfunctions and colloquial linguistics. At one point, the oldest sister, the one with depleted lung capacity, stirs herself from a lawn chair to bellow at her offstage grandson, "If you don't stop boppin' your head up in and out of my goddamn sunroof, I'm gonna come over there and slap the fuck out of you with a hammer till I see the white meat."

It's the kind of rancidly ripe dialogue with easily achieved comic intentions. But just as Barbara, the miscreant sibling, arrives unawares for the intervention, the stage plunges into darkness. When the lights come up a few moments later, everything in the park setting is the same, right down to the sprinkling of undersized balloons and the trashy clothes that the characters have been wearing. Except that the clothes are now filled by black actors bearing the same character names, who continue the misbegotten intervention in a vernacular black equivalent of the white-trash talk of the preceding scene.

The playwright could be challenging us to compare our reactions to the racial flip as behavior is parallel but colored differently. And while it might seem like a one-trick device, it is not what it seems. The first of several head-spinning twists, it's the only one that will be revealed here as the play moves so far away from where it started. The experience doesn't much change any character's view of the world, and without that bit of dramatic evolution, "Barbecue" remains basically a comedy with serious moments, ending with a big gag.

Margo Hall and Susie Damilano sharply play the two super-addict Barbaras, who are silent in the first act but dominate the second in a tense meeting in which they reveal their true colors as well as a bit too much of the play-making machinery. Hall is also the savvy director of the large black and white ensembles made up of too many brightly drawn performances to list. They all help to make "Barbecue" more than a potluck, but what it is actually serving up will have to be called mystery meat.

 

"Barbecue" will run at San Francisco Playhouse through Nov. 11. Tickets are $20-$125. Call (415) 677-9596 or go to sfplayhouse.org.

 






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