Part of me wants to spoil every one of the approximately 30 *twists* in Robert O'Hara's gut-bustingly funny but ultimately really kinda sad—maybe?—Barbecue, an Intiman production that runs at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute through June 25. But I'm not going to. Spoiling other plays is a matter of giving away candy-like details of plot elements, but spoiling this play would make you feel less challenged by it, which would ruin the fun. Still, I will say its cast, under the direction of Malika Oyetimein, is fantastic. And I will tell you one spoiler, one of the twists right up front, something you realize 10 minutes into the show.
There are two casts. Well, no, not two casts, but two sets of actors for each part. When the show starts, the characters look like this:
It begins in a classic public park: covered picnic tables, big swing set, one of those black grills with the thick cylindrical grates people trust even though they spend all their time exposed to the elements. The whole thing looks gold-dusted and almost nostalgic, a serene counterpoint to the chaos of the family drama it contains. Props to designer Julia Hayes Welch for wit and execution.
The first family you see is white. Charles Leggett, playing a mustachioed, pumpkin-bellied hick named James T., stumbles around with a beer glued to his hand and tells us about his sister Barbara, a hellion who is nicknamed Zippity Boom because, as Mr. T explains, "She gat two modes. Zippity. Boom. Ain't shit in-between. Ain't no zippity-do-dah. When she taste liquor. She go Zippity. Boom. Period."
At the behest of his sister, Lillie Anne, James and his two other sisters have convened in the park to stage an intervention for Barbara. As Lillie Anne describes her plan, which is seemingly ripped straight from the popular A&E television series, everyone's flaws and secret addictions and insecurities are hilariously revealed. After all that, about 10 minutes into the action, the lights go out.
When the lights come back up, the white family is now a black family. Charles Leggett no longer plays James T.; Lamar Legend does. Cynthia Lauren Tewes no longer plays the earnest but chiding and fed up Lillie Anne; Shaunyce Omar does. Carol Roscoe no longer plays Marie; Angel Brice does.
The black characters use the same gat damn words as the white family, the same gat damn phrasing, wear the same gat damn costumes, and are even in the same gat damn intervention situation. The only thing that's changed really is the color of everyone's skin.
Playwright O'Hara is betting you think a certain way about people who smoke crack. He's betting you think a certain way about white-trash folks. He's betting you think a certain way about cultural appropriation. He's even betting you think a certain way about threatening people with tasers.
I've spoiled enough of the show already and we're still only partway through the first act. I won't say any more. But a number of questions already come to mind. Why do people associate the crack epidemic with black people when a lot of white people did and do use crack, too? Why didn't we treat the crack problem the same way we're treating the opioid problem?
I was nodding (and shaking my head) at the white version of this family for acting like the pill-popping, alcoholic aunts and uncles I knew back in Missouri, but, as a white guy, should I have been responding the same way when the black family appeared onstage? Does associating poor whites with meth and poor blacks with crack do anything but perpetuate a false, divisive narrative that only serves the wealthy fucks getting rich off poor peoples' pain? And finally, how did O'Hara make me make laugh so hard during a scene wherein a grown man tazes his grown sister? HOW?
During the second act, the questions change, and they're all worth asking, but the two I was left with, the two I'm still thinking about, are these: Is payback the only form of justice that's possible in capitalism? Is money the only thing that unites Americans, even as it tears us apart?