Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, currently playing at Stage West in Fort Worth, is fierce, dark, satire. Like David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, it has very grim undercurrents, disguised as comedy of manners. Making the trek to cowtown exhausts me, but I wince to think I might have missed one of the most powerful, chilling, sardonic shows I have ever experienced, period. It lulls you with the quaint humor of queer sexuality as it’s perceived in Afro-American culture. Yes (just as in white culture) much of the contempt our hero, Sutter, is exposed to, comes from ignorance. And on its face it’s funny. But the longer and harder and closer you look, the more poisonous it feels. As if Sutter, cool, genuine, sophisticated, is being gradually slipped strychnine. O’Hara satiates us with the candy of hilarity, while delivering his rabbit punches with stealth.
Divided into two acts of short episodes, Bootycandy begins with young Sutter asking mama some frank, but earnest questions about sex. Mama promptly freaks out. Later, when an older man (possibly a pedophile) starts following Sutter home, he relates the predicament (not for the first time) to his mother and stepfather. Like many pedophiles, the man senses Sutter’s hunger for warmth and nurturing. Sutter’s parents respond by blaming him (though not in so many words) implying he must have brought this on himself, by his lack of butch pursuits and virile demeanor. It’s laughable, and horribly, horribly sad. In the second act, Sutter and Larry, another gay friend, cruise a blue collar white guy named Clint, who otherwise passes for straight. There is something heartbreaking about Clint, and deliberately, vaguely sinister about Sutter and Larry’s approach to this transaction. O’Hara’s dialogue here is sparse and enigmatic.
At first Sutter’s calm, even temperament feels natural, almost a relief in the context of hysteria that engulfs him. Then you begin to wonder if he’s shut down. At the center of Bootycandy is an atrocity that’s hinted at, then only revealed in subplot involving a group of black playwrights. The result is ambiguity: has Sutter actually done these things, or deep in the midst of his shadows, only reflect on them? In the narrative we are given, can we infer that Sutter was molested as a boy, degraded by other white men he’s slept with? We can only speculate. Though it’s safe to conclude that we are carefully given certain details for a reason, and Sutter’s “pathology” did not grow in a vacuum. Also safe, I think, to wonder if the adults responsible for him (with the exception of Grandma) have ultimately failed him. O’Hara could have titled this play: Elegy for Sutter’s Soul.
Some shows shouldn’t be missed.
Bootycandy plays Stage West from August 11th-September 11th, 2016. 821 West Vickery Blvd, Fort Worth, Texas 76104. 817-784-9378. www. stagewest.org