Don’t be fooled by the wide, bold brushstrokes that give life to Barbecue, Robert O’Hara’s invigoratingly original comedy that opens at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston on April 7. The vibrant characters and deceptive boldness that have fast become O’Hara’s trademark are very much present—deliciously so—yet Barbecue probes its audience to consider truths that run much deeper.
The allure of Barbecue lies in its conceit and execution rather than its plot, most of which is too exciting and spoiler-ridden to discuss here. But from what little is appropriate for me to reveal here, it may intrigue you enough to experience it for yourself.
Lillie Anne, it seems, is the only sibling in the O’Mallery family that has her life together (to the extent that a life is defined by having a job and not being an addict). She has called on her siblings to convene at a park somewhere in Middle America for a barbecue that will actually, instead, be an intervention for their sister, Barbara. The family is far from functional, though, and Barbara isn’t the only one with a substance abuse problem.
“And how many beers is that for you, James T? You smell like a gatdamn discount liquor outlet,” says one of the siblings. “And you, Adlean, how many gatdamn painkillers did you throw down your gatdamn throat since you been sitting up in here? Let’s get yo’ oxy codine perc-a-muthafuckin-set ass an intervention up in this heah park. And Lillie Anne, you’re the worse of all. You like putting shit together sittin yo’ fat ass up on your high horse telling everybody else what the hell is wrong with they lives.”
The foul-mouthed, larger-than-life family is instantly amusing, trading barbs with relentless verve. They’re irresistible, really. But does our laughter begin to feel exploitative?
And what of the race of the family? Do you have any predictions based on the excerpt above? I bet you do, and that’s exactly what’s at the crux of Barbecue.
It turns out that O’Mallery family is white. In some scenes. In others, they’re black. Alternating back and forth during the play’s first act, we are afforded the opportunity to see the story unfold with two different casts. The reason for this is revealed at the close of the first act, a conceit that will dominate the play’s surprising second act.
It’s a tough play to get right, and O’Hara’s brazen and unconventional inventions require a director adept at not only challenging audiences with difficult questions but keeping them engaged throughout.
To that end, there is no local director who has had more success with works that defy convention and leave nothing on the table than Summer L. Williams. From her electrifying work on Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. earlier this season to last year’s Bootycandy (also by O’Hara, at SpeakEasy Stage) and An Octoroon (at Company One, for which she won the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director), Williams has consistently shown that there is no conversation she’s unwilling to have and that some profound things can happen when we check ourselves at the door.
For Williams, the conceit of the two casts—one white and one black—is to get the audience thinking about how we feel as we’re watching one cast over the other. Do we find the black cast funnier? Do we dismiss the white cast as just “white trash?” Is there a difference in how we view a black addict versus a white addict?
“You know, I’m so deeply interested in the stereotypes of this play and how far they can be pushed versus how much of those stereotypes are created in the audience’s mind,” Williams said. “I’m also curious about what will be excused and where the empathy lies—if there is any empathy.”
Barbecue goes well beyond the “trick” of having dual casts, though. (Remember that twist I mentioned earlier?) “On the surface, it seems like a very straightforward thing,” Williams said. “Once you get past the cast changing back and forth, the idea of manipulation, deception, who’s story gets told and how it gets told—those are all things that I find fascinating.”
If Barbecue impresses upon you one thing once the lights come up, don’t be surprised if your feelings about the play morph and evolve the more time you give the work to settle. “A lot of times, as work often does,” Williams said, “it causes you to think about who you are in relationship to it and the different things that you bring to a story in terms of how it shapes your understanding of it.
In thinking about such reactions, Williams hopes that some of our unconscious bias will rise to the surface, prompting conversation, introspection, and honesty.
“The play is meant to make us encounter our bias,” she said. “That’s what’s most exciting about it, for me. All of it is important for us to feel a little like, ‘Wow. I just wanted into something and now everything that I made up about it might not be true. What does that mean about what I made up about it? And what does it mean about the truth?’”
BARBECUE. 4.7–5.7 AT LYRIC STAGE. 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. WWW.LYRICSTAGE.COM