‘Bootycandy’ looks at black culture through blackout sketches at convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre
By Bob Abelman
Theater at convergence-continuum can, at times, be provocative, profound, perverse and very funny. Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy” is all of these things at once, though not always in balance or with consistently satisfying results.
The play, which premiered in 2011, serves up for our consideration the playwright’s experiences as an effeminate, gay man living in an uncompromising black culture. And it does so through a series of vignettes that range from smartly satirical to stone-cold sobering rather than a traditional running narrative.
By presenting these personal experiences unconventionally and through the filter of outrageous exaggeration and social satire, “Bootycandy” isolates and exposes toxic African-American attitudes toward homosexuals. The hope is that, through our collective laughter, those attitudes and the stereotypes they generate will be undermined, dissipate and disappear.
Most of the 10 vignettes feature Sutter (Wesley Allen), the playwright’s alter-ego, in revealing slice-of-life moments that take place in his childhood home, a nursing home and a local bar.
We see a very young and curious Sutter asking his woefully ill-equipped mother about his private parts. Later, an adolescent and decisively gay Sutter falls victim to an impromptu intervention by his parents, who attempt to set him straight by recommending that he put down Jackie Collins novels, take up sports, and “bend at the knees when you pick stuff up.” Later still, at some dive, an older Sutter and a friend pick up and accommodate a drunk, depressed and straight white guy who wishes to be sexually humiliated.
Four actors play the other characters in Sutter’s scenes, and each is also given a tangentially relevant vignette of their own. There’s an inspirational sermon by a cross-dressing preacher (Michael May), an over-the-top phone conversation between four friends (all played by India Nicole Burton and Rochelle Jones), one of whom is pregnant and plans to name her baby Genitalia Lakeitha Shamala Abdul because she likes the way it sounds, and an intense monologue that offers the victim’s perspective (Nate Miller) of a late-night mugging.
And, as if an afterthought, there is a scene — one of the evening’s best — where the playwright cunningly comments on the challenge of writing plays like this with vignettes like these for predominantly straight, white audiences like us.
Most of the vignettes are laced with thematic and graphic profanity. Many, but not all, are cleverly conceived and very well executed by a talented and fully committed cast. One offers gratuitous male nudity.
Director Terrence Spivey does yeomen’s work, aligning the assortment of comedic and dramatic blackout sketches that is “Bootycandy” to create an evening of coherent and entertaining social commentary. What he failed to achieve on opening night was consistency, for his actors were often on a different page regarding how broad satire should be. At times some went significantly overboard, which got the laughs but turned the production into something less desirable and impactful than what the playwright had in mind.
And, too often, actors went unseen. Jim Smith’s set design scatters three separate performance spaces amid three clusters of tiered audience seating in con-con’s intimate theater. Everyone in attendance has an obstructed view and an awkward vantage point some time during the performance.
The production’s miniscule budget does nothing to harm this play, but there are plenty of missed opportunities. This is particularly evident in the way of Malikah Johnson Spivey’s costume design, which would have enhanced the humor and poignancy in the phone conversation sketch, among others.
“Bootycandy” is most certainly an audacious piece of work, which is why it premiered at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., and had an Off-Broadway run in 2014.
Audacious is what con-con tends to do best. CV
WHERE: convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland (Tremont)
WHEN: Through April 16
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$15. Call 216-687-0074 or visit convergence-continuum.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 27, 2016.
Lead image: From left, Wesley Allen, Rochelle Jones, Michael May and India Nicole Burton. PHOTO | Tom Kondilas