An essay John M. Baker
The Convert is the first chapter in a trilogy of plays Danai Gurira is creating about Zimbabwean identity. In this first play, she transports audiences to Southern Africa in the mid-1890s: a major historical moment for the part of the continent then known as Rhodesia, today called Zimbabwe. During this turning point in African history, ideologies, religions, traditions, and cultures collided with the arrival of British colonizers and Christian missionaries, and the reverberating effects of these events are still palpable in Zimbabwe today. To begin understanding twenty-first century Zimbabwe and to begin grappling with her own identity as a Christian, a woman, and a Zimbabwean, Gurira knew she had to start by excavating this inciting incident. “Who we are today,” she explains, “is how we are affected by what happened back then.”
A few treaties and concessions in the late 1880s paved the way for much of the social, political, and cultural chaos in which Gurira’s characters are immersed. During the late nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa, Zimbabwe’s mineral deposits and agricultural riches made the home of the Ndebele and Shona peoples very desirable to the British, Germans, Portuguese, and Boers. The British gained the advantage when the leader of the Ndebele signed the Rudd Concession and the Moffatt Treaty, unknowingly conferring British politician and businessman Cecil John Rhodes with sweeping commercial and legal powers and “complete and exclusive charge of all metal and mineral rights.” Queen Victoria then granted Rhodes a charter, and his British South Africa Company (BSAC) became the administrative power in the region. Before long, the first group of settlers had arrived and Rhodes had granted Christian missionaries huge tracts of land to build mission stations.
Bootycandy actor Benja Kay Thomas took a few behind the scenes photos of our amazing cast as they are fitted for costumes. Check out what happens back-stage!
Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy was inspired in part by the life and music of Michael Jackson. And there’s no better feeling than having composer Lindsay Jones’ re-workings of “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It” playing in your head after rehearsal. But what strikes me most strongly as a young director about Robert’s work is his calibration of the other music in Bootycandy - the music of his text. Robert crafts the actors’ delivery of his dialogue with great precision. In rehearsal, Robert conducts the symphony of Bootycandy. He waves his arms, snaps to an unseen metronome and gestures at the exact moment an actor should speak to end a beat of silence. At times, he paces around the rehearsal room with eyes shut, listening.
Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback sits with Playwright/Director Robert O'Hara. This is the second part of his interview.
Walter Bilderback: Your plays have run a gamut of subject matters and historical settings. Your first play, Insurrection: Holding History, was about a young gay Black man who takes a wrong turn after a family reunion and finds himself in the middle of the Nat Turner uprising. Antebellum bounces back and forth between Nazi Germany and Atlanta the night of Gone With the Wind's premiere, with a transsexual Black cabaret artist connecting the two stories. Etiquette of Violence imagines the later life of Walter Younger's son from A Raisin in the Sun. What draws you to stories? Do you feel you have a "style" as a playwright?
Robert O'Hara: What draws me to each of my plays is a collection of questions that many times I don't even know I'm asking. My brain is filled with What Ifs and Whys and what I like to call "Who shot Johns." I like history because it allows me to play with expectations and realities. I like creating alternative histories and I think that’s because in many ways I feel like I live in an alternative present. I get to go to these wonderful places and explore my creativity and that simply is not most peoples reality. As for my style. . . I've always thought of my work as the Theater of Choke: I want to choke my audiences. Just so it’s not easily digestible and therefore forgettable. I want them to have to work my plays inside them and feel themselves gasping for air. So if I have a style of writing, I guess it would be. . . Autoerotic Asphyxiation. LOL... yeah that’s my style.
Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback sits with Playwright/Director Robert O'Hara. This is the first part of his interview.
WALTER BILDERBACK: Let's start with the basic: What's Bootycandy?
ROBERT O'HARA: Bootycandy is the name that my grandmother and mother used for the penis when I was a little boy. After seeing the world premiere of this play in DC, my mother turned to me and actually said "It was BooBoo Candy why on EARTH would we call your penis Bootycandy?" and my response to her was "Oh Boo Boo Candy makes oh so much more sense, right???" Regardless I heard Bootycandy... all my life. So I think my Mother is making up some Boo Boo Candy ... that just sounds crazy. Now, Bootycandy... I can kinda understand. LOL...
WB: The play has been described as semi-autobiographical. I'm guessing the stress is on the "semi."
RO: When I watch the play I can see where most of the scenes come from... they are all from real life experience and most of the more surreal things are absolutely true...