Alice (black, gay and male) in a 21st-Century Wonderland

A mother instructs her young son as to the proper euphemism for his penis. “It’s a not a dick,” she tells him. “It’s called a bootycandy.” A fire-and-brimstone preacher seizes what he calls “a teachable moment” to come out of the closet in drag before his congregation. Four women gossip disapprovingly (and endlessly) via telephone about a friend who has named her daughter Genitalia (“She might as well name her Vagina”). A mother and stepfather try to derail their teenage son’s homosexual tendencies with a laundry list of suggestions, like taking up sports and avoiding musicals.

Not coincidentally, these and other characters coping so ludicrously with issues of sexual desire in Robert O’Hara’s stinging and original satire, Bootycandy, all happen to be black or gay (or black and gay)— that is, they’re authority figures who, having been relegated to the margins of mainstream society for centuries, have never exercised real authority.

O’Hara brilliantly perceives the common linguistic idioms that link gays and blacks— two groups with little in common other than their shared history of exclusion and persecution— just as, say, Gershwin and Gottschalk sensed the common emotional threads running through the music of blacks and Jews. But O’Hara’s response to this state of affairs is not to lament it but to have a howling good time with it.

In 11 very funny vignettes that jump back and forth in time from the 1970s to the present, we see conflicts between parents and children, blacks and whites, gays and straights— everything, come to think of it, except the dramatic staple of mainstream theater: the endless mysterious dance between men and women. (In lieu of heterosexual seduction, we observe a negotiation between two gay men concerning who will do what to whom, and when and where.)

Truth or dare

Nor do we encounter any strong, silent, confident adults here— only adults playing childish games (“truth or dare” or a “non-commitment ceremony” between two lesbians who’ve broken up) because they’ve been infantilized by society for generations; or overbearing black mothers overcompensating for the absence of black fathers; or men and women running off at the mouth because words are their only defense (a white man alone on the street at 3 a.m. avoids a mugging not by pleading or resisting but by delivering a nonstop monologue that convinces the would-be mugger that he really is inferior and in any case there’s no long-term profit in mugging).

In some sense, Bootycandy is a modern-day Alice in Wonderland, except here the Alice who encounters a menagerie of exotic creatures is not, as you would expect, the sole white actor in O’Hara’s five-person cast (Ross Beschler); it’s Sutter (Philip James Brannon), whom we first meet as an eight-year-old, then as a teenager, and ultimately as a gay adult. Sutter is the sanest character here but also the least interesting; the others may be wacky or desperate but they never admit to being plagued by doubt.

Within this narrow universe, O’Hara lampoons everything in sight, including the Wilma Theater itself: A clueless white dramaturge moderates a panel discussion among four black playwrights whose names and works he can’t quite remember, beyond the fact that they’re black. In another scene, the house lights go up and the five actors purport to shed their stage roles and just be themselves, only to discover that they have no selves— only the definitions imposed on them by the mainstream society.

Passage of time

Each of O’Hara’s 11 scenes succeeds on its own merits, but stringing them together so that some characters reappear provides an added bonus: a sense of how the passage of time both heals and wounds not only victims but victimizers as well. That lonely white (and maybe straight) man who propositions a black teenage boy or sneaks into a gay bar is no mere caricature but a human too. The final scene— in which Sutter visits his grandmother (played by the cross-dressing Lance Coadie Williams) in her nursing home and finds in her dementia a key to his own issues— is both hilarious and touching.

To be sure, O’Hara glosses over the significant difference between race (which is defined by one’s skin color) and gender preference (which is defined by one’s sexual behavior). But Bootycandy isn’t a sociology tract; it’s a perceptive and very funny satire that sticks to the ribs, as it should. The Wilma’s revolving set by Clint Ramos, confident direction by O’Hara and highly capable performances by five actors in multiple roles assure us that we are in the hands of people who know what they are doing, even if their characters don’t.