- OnStage Contributing Critic
Recently we are seeing contemporary plays move the spotlight back on the American family. In the last few years, this focus has primarily shifted towards working and lower-middle class families. However, few playwrights mirrored two families quite like this play. That is Robert O’Hara’s premise in Barbecue, which recently finished it’s run at San Francisco Playhouse. While the cast surrounding this production of Barbecue was impressive, along with the ideas and themes O’Hara discussed in this play, I found the execution of these ideas blurred an otherwise interesting concept.
Barbecue opens with the dysfunctional siblings of the O'Mallery family. They come together for an intervention in the park disguised as a barbecue for their sister Barbara, who is struggling with drug addiction. However, we come to find out there are two O’Mallery families, one white and one black, both afflicted with the same family turmoil. Hilarity sprouts from chaos, as the siblings unearth their own vices, while attempting to convince Barbara to go to a rehab center in Alaska.
This play opens an underlying discussion about race, using our own perceptions of these low-economic families. While we view this through the lens of black and white stereotypes, we can also relate their family dynamics in some way to our own families. Whether the family issues are drug addiction or sibling squabbles, these situations are present in these families despite their race, showing these problems are universal.
However, towards the end of the first act, we find out that the black family are actors on the set of a movie, based on the life of the real life O’Mallery family, who are white. The second act follows the two Barbara’s, one a recovering drug addict who writes a book about her life (played by Sally Dana), and the other a singer turned actress who we find out struggles from her own addiction issues (played by Margo Hall).
What I think O’Hara does successfully in Barbecue is bringing up fair examinations of race and media in our culture, and how both are exploited in our society for others benefit. I’ve heard many people leaving the theatre and discussing this play after, say that the O’Mallery family who is black was more believable than the O’Mallery family who was white. Now why is that? The black O’Mallery family had some of the best performances in this production. Marie (Kehinde Koyejo) was hilarious and Little Annie (Halili Knox) played a great matriarch. But why would an audience say that this version of the O’Mallery family was more believable?
Well looking at the statistics, in 2002, the NAACP found that African-Americans made up more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served more time in prison for drug offenses than White Americans. However, it is also found that more than two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are White or Hispanic. This again shows O’Hara playing into our perceptions as an audience seeing a black family with drug or alcohol addiction compared to a white family. This plays into a bigger conversation on race issues within our prison systems, resulting from the infamous “War on Drugs.”
My overall observation was the black O’Mallery family played their characters more overdramatically, which is ironic as this family turns out to be actors in a movie. Even the white O’Mallery family, the “real family”, turns out to be influenced by reality television when Little Annie puts together the intervention for Barbara. The real Barbara later admits that her life story in her book was a lie and most everything she wrote was overinflated. This goes back to O’Hara’s discussion on media.
We are in a culture influenced by social media, reality television, and news outlets that we consume daily and use to shape our perceptions on the outside world. This media has the power of how people of different races and backgrounds are portrayed, which unfortunately isn’t always fair. African-Americans and Hispanics are shown primarily as drug dealers, criminals, and gang members more than we see them in more positive roles. We see the uneducated and “white trash” narrative shown for White Americans, but it is often overly balanced with more optimistic depictions. These perceptions become part of the public consciousness that create the characters in Barbecue, setting up the brilliant twist that the family we perceive as more convincing is false.
My criticism when it comes to Barbecue is that because of all the conventions and topics that O’Hara presents, it takes a while to fully digest what he is trying to get across to the audience. With so many twists and turns, we end up loosing the relatability of these characters that O’Hara sets up in the first act. There is some emotional appeal presented with the Barbara’s later in the second act, but it is so far in the story and not long enough for us to make connections to their plights. I greatly appreciate keeping the audience on its toes while bringing up difficult themes, but a general audience needs some sense of stability within the story or characters to ground these ideas. I think Barbecue is one of Robert O’Hara’s most interesting works yet, but I believe the play could have benefited from a clearer storyline and more fleshed out characters to streamline his message.
Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8.