Bootycandy's Unabashed Sex Talk Is Not For the Faint of Heart

Perhaps you’re wondering what the title of Bootycandy means, so let’s start there. In Robert O’Hara’s play, “bootycandy” refers to a penis — specifically, it’s a term coined by the grandmother of an African-American family that has now passed down to the next generation. We hear it almost immediately in the first scene, as a mother instructs her young son (named Sutter) not to play with his bootycandy. It’s clear from the context and several other references that the little boy is gay, and will have a challenging time finding his identity. 

This moment sets the stage for things to come, so fair warning — Bootcandy is ribald, deliberately shocking, and clearly meant for adults only. Some will be offended by it, but for me, the best of it is marvelous — provocative, hilarious and touching. 

I say “the best of it” because the format involves 11 short scenes that function almost as mini-plays. (O’Hara describes Bootycandy as a vaudeville entertainment, which captures some of the sense of playful disconnectedness.) For the most part, these playlets are self-contained and unrelated to one another, though several characters appear in more than one of them. That includes Sutter, whose presence establishes a theme — this a world observed by a gay black man, a life defined by a sense of being an outsider.

Bootycandy seems like an homage to George Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum, which similarly was a collection of vignettes about African-American stereotypes. But Bootycandy takes things several steps further. Now, we’re not only considering race, we’re also exploring sexual identity (and, more tellingly, the problematic intersection of the two). Colored Museum was mildly scandalous — maybe a three on the Richter scale. Bootycandy scores at least a nine. 

The two plays also share some unevenness. Bootycandy includes several playlets that are pitch-perfect and truly brilliant. “The Happy Meal,” a mini family drama set around a kitchen table that opens the second act, is a devastating parody of pretty much the entire history of modern American drama, even as it suggests that the slippery slope of Sutter’s life is now a precipitous downward spiral. The writing will leave you reeling — laugh-out-loud funny, but also painfully true. On a rather different note, “Dreamin’ in Church” is a superb send-up of the hypocrisy of evangelical churches and their congregations (and features a sensational performance by Lance Coadie Williams as the silver-tongued preacher). 

Both of these sequences are heightened depictions of stereotyped characters, and in that sense might qualify as vaudeville turns. But O’Hara also shifts gears from time to time. A couple of scenes set in a gay bar where Sutter is involved in flirtations both covert and overt are disquieting for their small-scale realism amidst so much broad comedy. Still, it’s the humor that registers most vividly, at least with me. (In one scene, the preacher opens his book and announces with great, grandiose seriousness, “In the Bible, Cicely Tyson wrote …” Well, I laughed so hard that I missed the next several minutes.)

This is Bootycandy at its best. I’d also have to say that not all the scenes are on this level — a few don’t work at all, and even some of the better ones go on too long. There is a meta-theatrical conceit (I don’t want to say more, because Bootycandy is all about surprise) that doesn’t add up to much. More generally, it would be a mistake to look to this play to provide serious commentary about race. There are some thought-provoking moments, but mostly Bootycandy works best as a tour de force of pure theatricality. 

But it demands to be seen, not least for the Wilma’s brilliant production, directed by the author, which on every level — especially its ensemble of five superb actors — could hardly be better. Bootycandy may be uneven, but in the aggregate, it’s bootylicious.

Through June 16, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824,