Thus begins a reviewer’s light treading in order to not reveal too much and spoil the surprise for an audience intent on seeing Barbecue at the Public Theater. I’ll only reveal enough to convince you that you must see this play, and given that the aspects of this play are divine in every way, it won’t take much.
The Public Theater is famous for its consistent deliverance of sterling materials to the theatre cannon, such as A Chorus Line, Hair, Topdog/Underdog, and the currently running on Broadway Fun Home and Hamilton. These productions have undoubtedly forged new frontiers for the theater. Barbecue, The new play by Robert O’Hara (BootyCandy), which just opened at The Newman Theatre is sure to be a member of this list, for it is the new touchstone of the American Theater.
“Turn off your g**d*mn phones,” begins the voice Robert O’Hara over the sound system, “… Nobody want to hear yo g**d*mn phone ringin.” And so begins possibly the most brilliant cellphone speech ever to echo the rafters. Before the lights come up, the play has begun its work on the audience. In turning off our phones we were agreeing to the semantics of the hours that followed, because that’s where this play lives; A place where harsh phrasing is second nature. To say that this play has explicit language is an understatement– This play reinvented the art of swearing. O’Hara brilliantly uses this cursing and repetition to drive home ideas that he cracked open with his exploration of semiology.
The language flew from actors mouths as if it were the olympics of the theatre. Thoughts fly and are embodied in an instant. Though the text is not what you would find in everyday conversation, these brilliant actors approach O’Hara’s masterful score with the diligence of Shakespearean verse. The actors breathe life into his text– and the audience doesn’t miss a beat.
The story (recall my obligation to save some surprises for the sake of story) sits around a “set” of interventions with drug-addicted family members. Though this seems simple, by the end of this two-act, O’Hara has explored a slew of relevant topics that include drugs, race, religion, movies, fame, money, “titty cancer,” and “ball cancer,” all while telling a story that left my and the entire audiences’ mouths vacillating between two positions: screaming in laughter, and agape in utter shock.
In an obligation to the preservation of the story, I cannot even submit to you character names, which makes navigating the description of performances troubling. I myself, wasn’t even allowed a Playbill until intermission. However, I can pass along that all of the performances across the board are transformative. Heather Alicia Simms (A Raisin in the Sun) shines as the sister to a drug-addict. She doesn’t let the pace of the show get in the way of her witty punch lines, and total embodiment. Constance Shulman (Orange is the New Black) is an epic comedic force that can change the room with a one-word line. Kim Wayans (In Living Color, A Handsome Woman Retreats) portrays the grounded “motherly” sibling figure (how vague– I know) with a command that warrants high praise. Though these performances get note, this is an ensemble piece thats perfection cannot be pinpointed by certain characters.
Under the directing helm of Kent Gash (Langston In Harlem, Miss Evers’ Boys) Barbecue is fearless. It’s a story-telling experience that is the well-raised hybrid child of The Looney Tunes and American Horror Story. Gash’s direction follows O’Hara’s text with intelligible ease, but a strong voice of his own. His work on this piece is undeniably potent.
The world we live is is full of many lies. However, for every lie, there is a truth. It’s as if Barbecue displayed every one of these lies and cracked open every truth, because for the first time in my theatre-going experience, the theatre was not limited by race, culture, creed, or knowledge. The truth that is accessed here is absolutely gorgeous, melancholic, ugly, and comedic all at once. This isn’t a play about race, or sex. It isn’t a play about mental illness or a play about infidelity. This is a play about all of that and truth.
Go forth and see good theatre. Go see Barbecue. And, in the words of Robert O’Hara– “Enjoy the g**d*mn show.”
BARBECUE – by Robert O’Hara; Directed by Kent Gash
Scenic Design by Clint Ramos; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Jason Lyons; Original Musica and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones; Hair and Wig Design by Leah J Loukas; Voice/Dialect Coaching by Dawn-Elin Fraser.
Cast With Becky Ann Baker, Marc Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas, Kim Wayans.
“Barbecue” continues through Nov. 1 at the Public Theater; 212.967.7555 ; www.publictheater.org