What is Bootycandy?
For starters, it’s the name that playwright Robert O’Hara’s mother and grandmother used for the male genitalia. “It’s the candy to the booty!” says “Young Black Mom” in the play. O’Hara’s real mother remembers things a little differently: “My mother claims it was never booty candy,” said O’Hara. “She said it was ‘boo boo candy.’ I was like, ‘Yeah Mom, whatever.’”
But Bootycandy is also the name of a play, a wildly funny, over-the-top, thoughtful take on race, being gay, and being gay and black. It had its world premiere at Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2011 and was presented Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2014; both productions were also directed by O’Hara.
Directing the production here in Boston is Summer L. Williams, fresh off of her triumphant production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, which was a joint effort by Arts Emerson and Company One. (Next Spring, Williams will tackle O’Hara’s critically acclaimed Barbecue for the Lyric Stage.)
Bootycandy consists of 11 loosely connected vignettes, most of which are held together by Sutter, a semi-autobiographical character based on some of O’Hara’s experiences. Maurice Emmanuel Parent, one of Boston’s best actors, stars as Sutter. We see Sutter through different ages and phases of his life, from a child asking his mother what a period is through visiting his grandmother in a nursing home.
The first four short plays that make up Bootycandy were originally written for different reasons, totally independent of one another, over the course of about 10 years. About five years ago, O’Hara was asked to take some of the characters from those plays to “see how they would live out in a larger frame.”
O’Hara was surprised by how well the plays ended up fitting together. “When I went back to look at them and picked out these four or five plays, I was like, ‘Oh, this might be interesting,’” O’Hara said. “The character of Sutter began to emerge and so that actually was very easy to see once I thought about it being one evening. But I had never thought about it being one evening until I was asked,” he added.
In addition to his own experiences, O’Hara has also been influenced by The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s 1986 groundbreaking satire of African-American culture (which also played out in 11 vignettes, or exhibits).
In fact, O’Hara was mentored by Wolfe. “I was abundantly aware that I was doing a play that had a lot of different connected scenes, so it was all over the place about The Colored Museum. That work influenced my work, absolutely,” O’Hara said.
Having no concrete through line or fluid narrative, there is an abstractness to Bootycandy that is hugely fulfilling. O’Hara does not shy away from being bold, blunt, and sometimes over the top, though he has left enough space in the play so that it can breathe, forcing—or better, allowing—the audience to fill in the blanks. Stylistically, from scene to scene, the tone alternates between riotously absurd and stirringly sober.
“The plays asks the audience not to find a narrative,” said O’Hara. “There isn’t a narrative. There is a theme, but it doesn’t allow you to hang on to the normal linear narrative that you’re used to when you see a play. So that’s where the absurd comes in. Also, you know, I think being gay in America is kind of absurd at times.”
BOOTYCANDY. RUNS 3.12-4.9 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY AT THE BCA, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM/BOOTYCANDY