Strawdog Theatre made quite a stir upon announcing the cast for Robert O'Hara's Barbecue, which is now playing at Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre. The diverse cast includes some great storefront Chicago names and, with a promising young playwright behind the script (O'Hara also wrote Bootycandy, which played recently at Windy City Playhouse), it seemed that Chicago was sure to see the next At The Table-sized hit. Unfortunately, the production is more frustrating than entertaining due to O'Hara's incoherent text.
Very little can be said about the plot without stepping into spoiler territory, and the surprises are surely the main character of the production. The first act presents the alternating stories of a white family and a black family - with the same names and similar character traits - prepping a barbecue intervention for their drug-addicted sister. However, the end of act one brings a "twist" that changes everything heading into the second act - culminating in one of the most unexpected (and not in a good way) finales in recent memory.
At first, one may think they are in for a statement on the "white family struggling with their first world problems" trope - however, the three (!!!) twists that O'Hara throws at the audience make any messaging or impact impossible to comprehend. Just like in film, a twist only works if the proper build-up has been put into place, and Barbecue throws itself with full force at its narrative curves with very little to substantiate it. As the audience is forced around yet another turn in the text, it begins to feel like O'Hara wrote this script as a mean-spirited joke.
Luckily, there are stand-out performances that make the production, especially the first act, worth watching. Deanna Reed-Foster is fantastic as always, landing both her comedic and dramatic moments earnestly and artfully leading her peers. Barbara Figgins excels as Reed-Foster's white counterpart, also very funny, and Celeste M. Cooper is hysterical throughout. Ginneh Thomas is quite good as well, though she is forced to work with the most underwritten and stereotypical character in the play.
Damon Kiely's two-hour staging is always moving - the audience feels the urgency and weight of each moment even when we have no idea what is going on. Without Kiely's energetic direction, Barbecue could have been excruciating. Some viewers will surely love the rollercoaster nature of the play, but many will yearn for something more of substance. Strawdog's confounding Barbecue is only half-cooked.
Review by Cory Davis
Barbecue continues at Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre through September 30th, 2017. More information here.
The Hawk Chicago is featured on TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.