‘Barbecue’ Serves Up A Heaping Plate of Skepticism about Hollywood
Everyone has secrets that come out “when it’s just family”. Intertwining layers of deceit and secrecy fall by the wayside with one’s relatives, allowing identity politics to play out in a grand fashion. Accordingly, many secrets are employed and revealed by playwright Robert O’Hara (Bootycandy) in Barbecue, with a twisting narrative so unpredictable that it feels more like a sleight of hand than a play. There are so many revelations that slowly sizzle throughout Barbecue that the ushers at the Public Theater could not distribute programs until intermission for fear of spoiling the drama.
Indeed, there is not much I can reveal in this article without also ruining the intricacies of O’Hara’s script for a potential audience member. However, know that the events of the show revolve around a colorful family meeting for a good old-fashioned American barbecue in a quiet park. However, the seemingly raucous barbecue is a ruse by the family to lure their out of control sister Barbara (Samantha Soule/Tamberla Perry) into an intervention. Hilarity ensues for this trailer trash family, who aren’t exactly innocent themselves.
This facade of folksiness, too, leads into further tricks of O’Hara’s own design that slowly begin to explore racial and social identity, the fetishization of tragedy, and exploitation in pop culture. The rollicking dialogue and constant plot twists are not only exciting, but relevant to O’Hara’s finer points about identity politics as performance. O’Hara constantly turns the audience’s expectations on its head, or as one character says, “We in the business of lying.” Another insists, “I am who I say.”
Actors are constantly reintroduced as someone else, with another layer of their character identity peeled back to contrast how intimacy plays out in public spaces. The fact that what appears at first to be a droll relationship comedy becomes a pointed examination of how eagerly society thirsts for stories of “poverty porn” is a testament to O’Hara’s subtlety. The laughs kept coming throughout the night, but became more uncomfortable over time.
The ensemble cast sharply executes these shifts in tone, infusing life into characters that could have been cartoonish or offensive. They succeed in seeming larger than life, along with the magically bucolic setting (Clint Ramos). By the end of the performance, the story has veered into far more glamorous territory than the grimy campground it started in. But in the rich, deceptive inner lives of Barbecue’s characters, there’s still dirt to be dug up. By so thoroughly skewering the sins of pop culture, O’Hara leaves much to digest after the main meal ends.