by Richard Dodds
When he was in the third grade and an ink pen burst in his pants, his classmates told him he was having his period. Robert O'Hara knew a period was what came at the end of a sentence, but he figured it must also mean something else. When he got home, he asked his mother, who said, "Look it up, that's what I bought you that dictionary for." It became a scene in his play Bootycandy, which continues with the boy asking his mother, "What's a blowjob?" "Look it up," she says. "I did." "And?" "It wasn't in there." "Then it must not be a word, and you shouldn't say things that ain't words."
In the play, the boy's name is Sutter, but it also might well be Robert, because the series of vignettes that Sutter encounters as a boy, a teenager, and a man all emerge at least from some kernel in O'Hara's life as a gay and black man in America. "It's autobiographical in its infancy, in the spark of imagination," O'Hara said before its 2014 premiere in New York at Playwrights Horizon. "They come from real encounters that I've had, but then of course it's completely outrageous. No one wants to see my life on stage, but if you sort of twist it and pull it and go to the extreme of the experience, that might be fun."
Bootycandy, which critics have variously called funny, smutty, subversive, fearless, and unpredictable, is having its Bay Area debut at Brava Theatre Center. Being presented by Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience and directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe in association with Brava, it runs Feb. 16 through March 5. Tickets are available at brava.org.
"'Bootycandy' is the name that my grandmother and mother used for penis when I was a little boy," O'Hara said during a Philadelphia run of the play. "After seeing the world premiere of this play in D.C., my mother turned to me and said, 'It was 'boo-boo candy.' Regardless, I heard bootycandy all my life. 'Boo-boo candy' just sounds crazy. Now, bootycandy I can kind of understand."
Bootycandy began as a series of seemingly unrelated short plays that O'Hara had written over the years, and at some point the artistic director of the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., where the play would debut in 2011, suggested finding some sort of through-line that could pull them into an evening of theater. Some pieces were rewritten, new pieces were added, a connective device was provided, and the character of Sutter became the dominant recurring figure.
The same actor plays Sutter through the scenes that find him at various ages, a role being played by Aejay Mitchell at Brava. Most of the pieces have a comic edge, but some go to dark places where race and sexuality can uncomfortably and even violently collide. "For the most part when you say the word 'gay,' one thinks of a white, upwardly mobile man," O'Hara said for Playwrights Horizon's in-house magazine. "Look at the TV, movies and magazines, most of the images of homosexuality surround white men. Modern Family, Will & Grace, and any of the various other sitcoms that even introduced homosexuality limited it to white men. The AIDS epidemic was brought to the forefront of our experience because it was happening to white men, even though of course thousands of people of color were getting HIV."
O'Hara's plays have not been widely produced in the Bay Area, but theatergoers may recall ACT's 1998 production of Insurrection: Holding History, in which a grad student studying slave history time-travels back to the day of Nat Turner's bloody rebellion in 1831. Before the clash begins, the student and a slave begin a physical relationship that turns into an inevitably tragic love story. Various aspects of the gay and African American experience have been the focus of all his plays since his breakthrough with Insurrection .
It's a drive that goes back to his years as a student at a mostly white Catholic school in Cincinnati. "In the sixth grade I wrote an adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, called Ebony and the Seven Cool Cats, " he said. "I showed it to the teacher, and I thought she'd say, 'Give me a break.' But we actually did it. And instead of having the evil witch say, 'Mirror, mirror on the wall,' I had them play the Diana Ross song 'Mirror, Mirror.' Looking back, that was like the height of gaydom, a gay anthem, really. It was all sorts of crazy."
On the cutting edge
Elaine Magree, who happened to be a hospice nurse in the 1980s, plays an irreverent lesbian hospice nurse and Cub Scout mom in the midst of early sobriety in Holding the Edge. In the solo show, opening March 3 at the Marsh's SF venue, Magree also plays multiple other characters as she deals with the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic.
Previously seen at the Marsh in Berkeley, Holding the Edge takes place on a specific date – Jan. 28, 1986 – the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded, forcing Ronald Reagan to postpone his State of the Union address. When he did deliver it a week later, coming after the death of his Hollywood friend Rock Hudson, many were hoping he would finally acknowledge the AIDS crisis head-on. He did not.
Magree wrote the play as a reaction to Reagan receiving a posthumous award at a hospice care workers conference in 2014. "I was so angry at this travesty," she said, "I wanted to scream at all 2,000 people in the room."
The performer-playwright used those events from 1986 to weave a story about the toll of AIDS, as she adopts characters including dying friends, a bitchy-punk caregiver, the estranged mother of a patient, a dying member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a homeless AIDS victim, and several others.
Holding the Edge runs through April 8, with tickets available at themarsh.org. The March 3 performance will honor SF General Hospital's Ward 5A/5B, the first dedicated unit for people with AIDS, and a model to be used around the world, with a portion of proceeds donated to the AIDS Memorial Grove. More info at themarsh.org.