Sunday, October 29, 2017

Staging interventions: Phoenix Theatre's 'Barbecue' seesaws on race, dependency, and ambition

There's an unusual cast list in Phoenix Theatre's program for "Barbecue," a trenchant comedy by Robert O'Hara that opened this weekend: Character names are omitted, as if we were about to witness a revue, where roles are fleeting, multiple or necessarily
First scene: White siblings in a troubled family.
unattached to names. We come to find out that the roles refer to people who are playing roles; thus, names are unreliable indicators of the reality behind the play.

That's just the start of the potential confusions, which clear up fitfully in the second act. To find the experience of "Barbecue" satisfying, you have to be prepared to hold big questions about race, family, and identity in abeyance. Not to worry: There's a Hollywood ending, and though it's somewhat unsettling, it does what such endings have historically accomplished — provide a definite resolution that is either superficial or profound.

The first scene is jarring: a dysfunctional white family has gathered under a park pavilion, jawing at each other, cussing a blue streak. When I saw it Saturday, the dialogue appeared to be badly written: Who pronounces "goddamn" "gat-damn," and why is there something else odd about what appear to be Southern accents, namely subject-verb agreements that resemble black English: "he go," for example?

Why the piling on of multiple addictions among these close kin? We seem to be in the realm of white-trash caricatures, recalling recurring productions years ago at the neighboring Theatre on the Square. Reaching back even further, I thought of James Thurber's old parody of Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" — Southern Gothic turned particularly grotesque — in a piece called "Bateman Comes Home." There, the first character presented, Old Nate Birge, is pictured as "chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead."

"Barbecue" presents us with this sort of raucous humor in a contemporary setting, where human degradation in the big city can be met with planned interventions: scripted invitations, with teeth, for a particularly troubled family member to agree to elaborately designed rehabilitation far away. There's one such person in this scene, known as Zippity Boom, who is also so named and situated in the second scene, which features a black family with parallel identities.

Second scene: Black siblings wrestle with similar problems
It's racial specificity without racial interaction, then, by which O'Hara departs from the usual dramatic handling of race on American stages. The interaction is put off until the second act, when the two Zippity Booms, neither of whom is who she appeared to be in Act 1, encounter each other in the same park pavilion (Bernie Killian's evocative set design) and get to know far more about the other than either one — as well as the audience — could ever have suspected.

The "parallel identities" I've referred to allow the black family a somewhat more florid and intense confrontation with the
The Zippity Booms engage in wary dialogue.
family member judged to be most in need of intervention. I began to think their internal difficulties and the way the three sisters and a brother express their neediness and focus it on the fourth sister sounded more natural and more involving. What baroque ferocity, special pleading and finger-pointing flourish among the black family!

There are three possible explanations for this: Seeing the white family first enabled me to get used to the strain on family bonds nearly shattered by conflict in the wake of various addictions. As a result, the way the black siblings express their needs and frustrations sounded more bred in the bone and less cartoonish. And that second explanation led to the most uncomfortable one: As an elderly white man, I was inevitably more disposed to assign drug-dependent internal strains to a black family than to a white one.

The third explanation is the most disturbing, and it's clear O'Hara deliberately created similar situations affecting the two families in order to arouse audience responses that reflect racial discrepancies. At any rate, unsettling and puzzling perceptions set in place by intermission are thoroughly exploded in Act 2. That's where the truth of everything presented before is put into question, and new truths emerge.

The tense second-act negotiations between the women with the Zippity Boo personas effectuate a storybook epilogue that opens out a saga of family peril toward an indictment of America today.  O'Hara shows how the machinations of celebrity and the tendency of the public to be enthralled by tales of private chaos can serve each other on the most conspicuous level of mass entertainment.

The comic effect of that result has been planted in everything that precedes the final scene. Every touch of hyperbole in how the families treat each other is built upon a reality we're not allowed to understand until late in the action.

It remains here only to applaud the fascinating characterizations and high-stakes rapport among the ten actors under the direction of Bryan Fonseca. They are Joanna Bennett, LaKesha Lorene, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela R. Plank, Beverly Roche, Chelsey Stauffer, Dena Toler, and Jenni White.

They present bleak caricatures rewound painfully toward a reality that's then catapulted into the big-screen American mother of all caricatures. Hooray for Hollywood! Gat-damn!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]