Choking on Satire: Playwright Robert O’Hara Talks Barbecue at the Geffen

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interview by MICHAEL VAN DUZER

[dropcap]Playwright[/dropcap] and provocateur Robert O’Hara is known for his fearlessly subversive plays like Insurrection: Holding History and Bootycandy. His latest piece, Barbecue, is having its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, directed by Coleman Domingo.

On the surface, Barbecue is a satire of a family planning an intervention for a drug-addled relative in a public park. But O’Hara has more on his mind than addiction. In a play that consistently defies expectations, family dysfunction, racial politics, and Hollywood celebrity all come under the scrutiny of the playwright and his lacerating wit.

For @ This Stage, O’Hara answers a few questions about writing, racism, and the vital importance of tomfoolery.

Your interview in the program talks about the Intervention reality show being an inspiration for Barbecue. How did you move from questioning the choices of the producers on that show to the complex theatrical anarchy of Barbecue?

Robert O’Hara: Well, I question anything that says it’s “reality.” As a writer, I know that’s not true. Everything on television is built to tell a story. But what really interested me was the overwhelming amount of “reality” episodes that dealt exclusively with White People… As if white people were the only people addicted to drugs and in need of an intervention. I wondered why it was more acceptable to see White Folks getting a chance at recovery than people of color. It’s common knowledge that there’s lots of drug abuse in all parts of our culture, and yet we seem to surround our “reality” shows with nothing but white people. Watch the white guy go around the world and eat. Watch the white guy renovate a house. Watch the white guy fix a car. Watch the white guy cook. As if people of color don’t eat, renovate houses, fix cars, or cook.

Barbecue works on several not-immediately-apparent realities. Were those all in place when you sat down to write the play, or did they develop from a more conventional original concept?

Nothing that I write is built from a conventional concept. I’m not interested in convention. There are enough writers who are, that I don’t need to add to [it]. While I never know everything that is going to happen in my work before I start creating it, there are always a cavalcade of Questions that I’m exploring as I write. I’m not interested in Answers. I’m interested in asking provocative Questions. What’s the most exciting versions of Why, Who, What and Where that I can find, and have all those questions bumping up against each other in a story.

You make your points with humor. What’s effective about using humor as a tool in your work?

For me, laughter is the blunt instrument of satire. When one laughs, it instantly indicts them into the scheme that is happening in front of them. And if you can indict the audience then you can start to slowly challenge that laughter. There is nothing more exciting than having an entire audience laughing at one moment, then questioning their laughter the next. Like laughing at someone tripping, then realizing that they just lost an eyeball. Now that laughter turns into something else.

You make a daring decision to upend audience expectations at the first act curtain. Did you worry about keeping their trust for the second act?

What the hell is a first act curtain created for if not to upend expectations? Who wants to see a show that ends its first act exactly as expected? Why stay for the second act if the first act led to exactly what you were expecting? Why on earth would I be a writer to create stories that folks expect? That sounds foolish. An audience should trust that they will be taken on a journey that they don’t expect.

Robert O'Hara. Photo by Zack DeZon.
Robert O’Hara. Photo by Zack DeZon.
Do the Hollywood themes in the second act resonate particularly in a Los Angeles theater?

I would hope so. Everyone has a relationship to Hollywood just like everyone has a relationship to DC or New York and other iconic locations… Why are the aliens in movies always trying to destroy America? Because it’s our fantasy that we’re the greatest place on earth and everyone wants to destroy us. There is a certain ego that we have as Americans or New Yorkers, or Angelinos. The land of milk and honey. Streets paved in gold. The land of make believe. All that stuff is great to play with when setting a story built in satire. Finding the Truth inside the Lie. Or as I like to think of it, finding the Beauty in the Horror.

Why is Colman Domingo such a good choice to direct Barbecue?

I picked Colman to direct the play because I know his sense of humor is on the same wavelength as my own. He’s also not afraid of the fact that I’m also a director and that when I give my thoughts they are coming from a writer who also directs. He has a wicked sense of humor and an outrageous sense of style. Barbecue needs someone who can dress up nicely and still act the fool. The play wouldn’t have the bite it does if it was simply done as a comedy skit with everyone playing jokes. Colman knows how to not play the joke.

Your characters are generally highly theatrical, but recognizably human. What makes a strong Robert O’Hara actor?

I write characters who believe strongly in the absurd. I think Donald Trump is “highly theatrical” and yet he probably thinks he’s just a regular human being. But to me he is absurd. He’s a complete unadulterated fool. And that’s what I require in what you refer to as a “strong Robert O’Hara actor” …I need someone who can invest in the honesty of tomfoolery. Actors who won’t judge their characters or try to make them funny. It’s deadly serious business for most of my characters. The characters in Barbecue don’t know they are in a comedy. So the actors should refrain from trying to play for laughs. They should play for truth. Their own absurd truth.

What would you like the audience to take away from the play?

I’d like for them to choke.

What do you mean?

I don’t want them to easily digest the play and then go home and forget it. I want them to remember the sensation of the play just how everyone knows what it feels like to choke. It means something happened to you physically. Something interrupted your natural digestive system. So that’s what I want. I want audiences to laugh until they choke. That’s satire.

NOW PLAYING: BARBECUE at Geffen Playhouse, through October 16.

bbq-ocpmThe grill is hot, the beer is chilled and the table is set for a typical O’Mallery family barbecue. But when their drug-addicted sister Zippity Boom arrives strung-out and out of control, her siblings have finally had enough — enough beer, enough whiskey and enough pills to confront her. Their ham-handed intervention ignites the fuse of this raucous and rollicking new comedy that skewers our warped view of the American family. From Obie and Helen Hayes Award winner Robert O’Hara, this Barbecue serves up a healthy helping of sibling love and loathing.

Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.