GROWING UP BLACK AND QUEER: THE CATASTROPHIC THEATRE PRESENTS ROBERT O’HARA’S ‘BOOTYCANDY’
By Trevor Boffone
Recent years have seen a rise in mainstream discussions centered on queer Black masculinity. Frank Ocean’s lyrics hinted at his queerness before the rapper opened up about the subject. Actress and writer Issa Rae’s Insecure questioned how women view Black men who have had sexual experiences with other men. Jaden Smith disrupted traditional notions of masculinity by playing with gender presentation before ultimately coming out as queer in 2018. And, perhaps the most landmark cultural production about the subject, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkin’s cinematic masterpiece Moonlight, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017. Yet, before all of these things were in the national zeitgeist, playwright Robert O’Hara was bringing the subject of queer Black masculinity to the stage, primarily with his most well-known work, Bootycandy, which will receive its regional premiere under the direction of Vance Johnson at The Catastrophic Theatre in Houston from February 14 to March 10.
Autobiographical in nature, Bootcandy uses O’Hara’s experiences growing up Black and queer to dramatize the story of Sutter, a young gay man who takes us on a whirlwind journey through the homes, churches, dive bars, motel rooms, and nursing homes that marked his childhood. The subversive comedy is a fast-paced, eclectic memory piece in which scenes, sermons, and sketches from Sutter’s childhood come together to comment on how being Black influenced his queerness. O’Hara’s play is a satirical exploration of the complexities of Sutter’s pain and pleasure as a young gay Black man, ultimately offering a raw account of cultural attitudes about homosexuality in the Black community. While the play’s scope may appear scattered, it finds cohesion by revealing personal truths about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Among its many accolades, Bootycandy’s original Off-Broadway production was a New York Times Critics’ Pick and the play won the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Drama. Even though the play premiered in 2011 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., its themes are as relevant now as they were then.
Although the play has the potential to be used as a tool of theatre for social change, for O’Hara, Bootycandy is just his life. “For a while the play was considered risky. To me, it’s just Tuesday. I can’t place too much value on it because it’s my life and I don’t want to make it special. Because it’s not. It’s just normal,” claims O’Hara. “I write like every other playwright writes. I write things that I’m interested in.” Even so, the playwright’s personal experiences hold transformative power. O’Hara notes: “The more people see work that has a diversity of opinions, the more we can be acknowledged and then we can begin to treat each other with more respect.”
Queer Black men face the double jeopardy of being marginalized not only for their race, but also for their sexuality. A study by the National Institutes of Health demonstrates how the “gender role strain” reflects how Black men must deal with homophobia and anti-femininity from within the Black community, which, in turn, can have a negative psychological effect. Due to cultural expectations, the relationship between masculinity and queerness is oftentimes fraught and can have damaging effects on mental health. As such, plays likeBootycandy are necessary theatre because they have the potential to ignite change.
To help manifest this change, Catastrophic is partnering with The T.R.U.T.H. Project on a series of post-show talkbacks regarding sexual health, religion, and mental health. Led by founder and CEO Kevin Anderson, The T.R.U.T.H. Project is a Houston-based organization whose mission is to educate and mobilize queer communities of color and their allies through social arts. As their focus is on mental, emotional, and sexual health within communities of color, The T.R.U.T.H. Project is a natural partner for Catastrophic. “The goal is to create an extension of the experience of the play,” says Anderson. “The play is extremely relevant. We have these conversations. We create these spaces. But I just don’t think it can ever be done enough. You have to start by changing one person and hope that it begins to cluster.” Anderson is looking forward to seeing the response from the community and hearing the dialogue that emerges following the performances. As Anderson mentions, Bootycandy is “definitely a conversation piece.”
As with all theatre for social change, the main point of the production is not just what happens on stage, but, more importantly, what conversations the work sparks after the audience leaves the theatre. The talkbacks, led by experts in the subject matter, will continue the work of the play, educating, engaging audiences, and ultimately sparking people to continue the discussion after they have left the theatre.
Despite having its world premiere nearly a decade ago, O’Hara is excited that Bootycandy continues to inspire conversations. He describes how the play’s main conversation centers around accepting difference: “How can we embrace each other’s differences, not despite your difference, but your difference as something to be embraced? We have always been here. There has always been a space that we’ve lived in and now that space is being acknowledged.”
Ultimately, Catastrophic’s production of Bootycandy is an important intervention in the 2018-19 Houston theatre scene. The fact remains that few plays by Black playwrights are produced outside of culturally specific theatre companies such as the Ensemble Theatre. Moreover, explicitly queer plays rarely get notable full productions in Houston. For these facts alone, we must pay attention to Bootycandy. How can theatre facilitate a conversation about queer Black masculinity? What can we learn? What potential does theatre such as Bootycandy have to transform the LGBTQ community to be a more inclusive one? While it is too soon to tell, one thing is certain—we must open our eyes and minds to these stories. Only then can change occur.
The Catastrophic Theatre’s production of Bootycandy runs February 14 through March 10, 2019, at MATCH (3400 Main St, Houston, TX). Spectrum South will be partnering with The Catastrophic Theatre for a special performance of Bootycandy on Sunday, February 24, at 2:30 p.m.