Cleveland Public Theatre offers a savory, saucy ‘Barbecue’
By Bob Abelman
Playwright Robert O’Hara has an affinity for laying bare issues of race, class and culture in America by poking all kinds of audacious fun at them.
In “Bootycandy,” seen last year at convergence-continuum, O’Hara explored the stigmatization of homosexuality in African-American culture by presenting it as TV sketch comedy. And, by doing so, he managed to also call attention to the egregious portrayal of blacks in TV sketch comedy.
In “Barbecue,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 and is on stage at the CPT, he showcases similarities in white and black lower-class family dysfunction by having it unfold in the familiar format of the Hollywood domestic comedy. And, by doing so, he manages to also call attention to the egregious portrayal of the lower class in domcoms.
In both plays, which are loaded with ferociously funny one-liners, the outrageousness sometimes gets the better of O’Hara’s good intentions and his efforts to cover so much ground occasionally hits a bump or two. “Barbecue” is particularly problematic in that its first act is rubbed with vinegar and char-grilled on an open flame while its second act is slow-cooked and basted with molasses.
Although this CPT production under Beth Woods’ direction has some difficulty reconciling these inconsistent stylings by being particularly plodding after intermission, it is nonetheless a savory and satisfying offering.
As the show opens, four O’Mallery siblings (Teresa DeBerry, Ray McNiece, Maryann Elder and Sally Groth) have gathered at the local park to share some barbecue and scared-straight talk with their youngest sister Barbara (Jill Levin). Barbara’s out of control drug and alcohol addiction and bad behavior have forced them to confront her in the hope that she will agree to a visit to rehab. Of course, this confrontation is backed up by a Taser set to medium-high. And their hope is bolstered by white-trash ignorance with a Jack Daniel’s chaser and addictions of their own.
The small patch of ill-kept park area (designed by Ryan T. Patterson) – with its dead tree and dying grass, no-frills grill and chain-link entrance – is the perfect place for this ill-planned, open-air intervention to occur.
Just as Barbara shows up at the park, the stage goes to blackout. When the lights return, the white O’Mallerys have been replaced by their black counterparts (Tonya Broach, Scott A. Campbell, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla and Katrice Monee Headd), and the conversation continues where it left off.
Everything is the same – the tacky wardrobe (designed by Inda Blatch-Geib), the setting (lit by Benjamin Gantose), the comedic antagonism and the character-defining addictions – except for the characters’ culturally disparate dealings with their sister and the expletives they readily employ.
The acting – which flies just north of caricature – is magnificent and, when matched with the surreality of juxtaposed O’Mallerys, keeps the audience laughing nearly nonstop.
Watching DeBerry and Broach’s small yet significant tweaks in their respective white and black portrayals of Lillie Anne, the oldest sister who orchestrates the intervention, is a particular pleasure. They are wonderful.
And the price of admission is justified just from witnessing Groth and Aquilla out-do each other as the remarkably addled Marie.
If only a smattering of Cleveland’s own Hot Sauce Williams’ dry spice could have worked its way into the second act of “Barbecue,” which features an intriguing meeting between the two Barbaras. It could certainly use something to hasten its heartbeat and add some much needed heat before all the dysfunctional O’Mallerys take to the stage once more to make a final satirical statement.
O’Hara’s work is an acquired taste for sure, and one certainly worth sampling at the CPT.
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through March 11
TICKETS & INFO: $12 – $30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.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 Feb. 25, 2017.
Lead image: From left, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla, Scott A. Campbell, Tonya Broach, Ray McNiece, Teresa DeBerry, Maryann Elder, and Sally Groth. Photo | Steve Wagner