By Leigh Austin
In the opening scene of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, a young boy stares at a dictionary, enthralled, trying to make sense of terms and situations he can’t quite understand. Words like “bootycandy” (his mother’s nickname for male genitalia), after all, have a myriad of cultural significances without holding a formal definition.
This struggle to understand ultimately becomes one of the play’s main themes as it presents us with vignettes related to the young boy’s life (loosely based on O’Hara’s experiences growing up gay and black) along with a series of mostly absurdist sketches. The play itself has moments of self-aware brilliance, such as a conference scene which explores the challenges of writing as a minority playwright in a world dominated by white institutions and their prescribed narratives, and moments where it reaches a bit too far (a scene that breaks the fourth wall to expose the artifice of theatre making comes across as heavy-handed). Yet, thanks to the incredibly talented cast featured in Windy City Playhouse’s production, the at times mismatched pieces add up to a hilarious and meaningful exploration of shaping and grappling with identity.
Travis Turner (Actor Two), as O’Hara’s fictional counterpart Sutter, displays incredible range as he adeptly portrays a young boy, a troubled teenager, and a (potentially) psychologically disturbed adult. His final scene, a touching moment where he and his grandmother reflect on his childhood, has the perfect balance of humor and emotional resonance. Turner’s male counterparts Osiris Khepera (Actor Four) and Rob Fenton (Actor Five) respectively bring energy, flamboyance, and the requisite smarminess (as Fenton portrays the ignorant white host of conference on black playwrights) to their performances.
While all three men, especially Turner, shine, it is the show’s women that carry the play. Krystel McNeil’s (Actor One) vocal talents take center stage as she embodies each of her characters with a remarkably different physical and vocal presence, and Debrah Neal (Actor Three) follows suit, managing to make characters like Sutter’s mom appear both strikingly real and, at times, hilariously absurd.
The technical element leave a bit to be desired as the elaborate projections and lighting are offset by the lackluster costumes and props, but this tremendous ensemble breathes life into the show regardless of its technical or textual flaws. By the play’s conclusion, I, along with the rest of the audience, was ready to dance along with the cast to some Michael Jackson beats.
By Leigh Austin.
Bootycandy runs at Windy City Playhouse through April 15th.