In a run-down city park—a sad collage of scrubby grass, cement and rusting metal—a disheveled young woman stands stock still, wearing an equally sad collage of cut-off shorts, neon-orange bikini top and dirty white undershirt. Her family has been here all morning but Barbara, the late-to-arrive central character of Barbecue, has just wandered into this shouting match, though her sister doing the shouting has yet to realize it. As the shouting continues, the look of confusion on Barbara’s face slowly transforms into one of horror as she listens and learns, too late, that this family barbecue is really her intervention.
Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, produced by Intiman Theatre and directed by Malika Oyetimein, is a tricky play to write about. Its two acts are narratively related but dramatically different, and the pivot between the two is too big a spoiler to mention in good conscience. Both acts showcase O’Hara’s preternatural facility with side-splitting, naturalistic dialogue—one allows us to float along enjoying the details of a story we don’t fully understand, and the other works overtime to string together a cohesive narrative that is almost beside the point.
Early one morning, members of the O’Mallery family assemble at a park at the request of Lillie Anne, the ringleader and organizer of this barbecue-slash-intervention for Barbara, nicknamed Zippity-Boom for the trajectory her drinking and drug use puts her on. “Why do we give a damn anymore?” says brother James T., played with zero-fucks-given-perfection by Charles Leggett, and it’s a salient question. In this family, everyone’s getting drunk at an intervention, discussing who’s just gotten out of jail, who owes who money.
The thing is, this play has two O'Mallery families, one white and one black, and alternates between them scene-to-scene (and that’s still not the spoiler). Same names, similar outfits—if you’re not careful, your attention can wander into Photo Hunt territory, trying to spot the differences between these two incarnations of the same world. But focus on the similarities. Of the family members, only Lillie Anne seems to be on the straight (if controlling) and narrow, James T. goes in for weed and beer, Adlean’s got a thing for pills along with a smoking habit and breast cancer, and Marie walks in with a Costco bottle of Jack Daniels which, despite the show’s title, is the only consumable to appear on stage. In both its white and black version, this clan runs through a litany of any family’s most obnoxious habits: retelling embarrassing stories, arguing over stories remembered differently, invoking the will of dead relatives to shore up your own point, sneaking in cruelty disguised as “truth-telling.”
As they bicker about anything and everything, including Lillie Anne's hippy-dippy, yoga-centric choice of rehab center for Barbara, a last-second reveal sends the first act straight into a wall, where it comes to a screeching halt, and we spend act two on a narrative tangent unpacking the themes and ideas O’Hara set up so deftly in the first act. It’s disappointing that after such a fun first act we end up in a series of tedious storytelling switchbacks, seemingly laid out to make sure we really get the points O’Hara built in act one. As fascinating as it is to dig into our society’s fascination with fame, money and lurid first-person memoir, not to mention race and appropriation, I’d prefer to just think about those issues as presented in context, rather than be told what to think about them. It didn’t help matters that the second act dragged on a bit, the funny fluidity of act one replaced by overlong scenes and clunky scenework.
There’s no question Barbecue is at its most delicious when these siblings are really going at it—Angel Brice as a Marie and Shaunyce Omar as a Lillie Anne are particular delights. Despite being plagued by some miscasting elsewhere, Oyetimein keeps this fractured train on the tracks nicely, and keeps the laughs coming while questions of fakery, honesty and family loyalty fly at you fast and furious.
Barbecue runs through June 25 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute