Get ready to add a new word to your vocabulary, because Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, staged by the Catastrophic Theatre, is one of the best shows of the year.
How’s that for a lede?
Bootycandy is a kinda-sorta autobiographical series of sketch-like, interconnected scenes centered around a man named Sutter. The play follows Sutter from childhood to adulthood, with O’Hara using him to explore and examine what it means to be both black and gay. Through stops at a church, the family dinner table, a bar, a conference, and even the Catastrophic stage itself in a very meta moment, O’Hara makes it clear that Bootycandy will take no prisoners, and that includes himself. But beneath its raucous script, there’s an incisive, biting look at what societal forces can do to a gay black man, meaning that someone has the unenviable task of balancing both the straight-up hilarity and sobering realism threaded through the fabric of Bootycandy. And that someone is director Vance Johnson.
Johnson puts on a clinic in terms of navigating tonal shifts. Whether the goings on are over-the-top cartoonish or earnest and tender, Johnson clearly has an eye for what works, be it the pitch-perfect pacing and rhythm of the play, its aesthetics, or the performances he’s coached out of his actors. And the actors are quite versatile of his actors, starting with Xzavien Hollins.
Though Hollins is only asked to embody one character in Bootycandy, that character is Sutter, our protagonist, whose arc from precociously curious child to bookish, emotionally distressed teen, and finally, to indifferent victimizer is brilliantly thorny. Sutter is messy and complex, and just one tonal misstep would have the power to undermine the whole production. But that would be in less capable hands. Hollins is nimble, well-prepared to deftly – and believably – move through each of his vignettes. In Hollins’s hands, the little boy with a Dr. Seuss book tucked under his arm is as recognizable as the pain that contorts his face as Sutter’s parents take turns listing off all the demands a real-life Sutter would hear over the course of years – dictates to play sports, build a snowman, stop listening to Whitney Houston – in a matter of minutes. Because of Hollins’s success here, the act of violence that punctuates the second act and its aftermath is all the more powerful, aided by a certain recurring, smiley affectation that goes from boyish to menacing.
Supporting Hollins are Brittny Bush, Mara McGhee, Gabriel Regojo and Domonique L. Champion. Each of the four play multiple characters throughout the evening. Bush makes a mark as a defiant mother whose ability to name babies should probably be revoked and as Sutter’s disinterested little sister. McGhee grabs the spotlight with Lucy’s cackle and Sutter’s mother’s exasperation and (eventual) anger. Together, Bush and McGhee highlight one of the evening’s more fun vignettes, in which a couple celebrate a “moment of non-commitment” in a petty, rude and uproarious manner.
Gabriel Regojo plays a grab bag of white men, but before you ask, each are distinctly their own characters. One is a sexual predator, one expresses a rambling desperation that’s so real it’s incredibly uncomfortable, and one is a master of word salad. (That would be the clueless moderator in “Conference,” who appears to be going out of his way to keep the label of “black playwright” on the assembled artists no matter what.
As terrific as the cast is – and they are – it’s Champion who steals the show, delivering an electrifying monologue as Reverend Benson in the play’s second vignette, “Dreamin’ in Church.” Champion’s rich voice roars from behind the pulpit, the audience in the palm of his hand. In Reverend Benson, Champion brings to life what’s probably O’Hara’s most wish-fulfilling sketch of the night, one which finds not just a tolerance of, but an acceptance and vehement defense of queerness from the black church. Reverend Benson has some things he wants to share with his parishioners, and Champion does it to riotous effect. As show-stopping a character as Reverend Benson is (for reasons you’ll have to see for yourself), Champion also nails the quieter moments in his other roles, such as Larry’s haunted remorse, and the tender moment he – as Granny – shares with Hollins’s Sutter.
Ryan McGettigan’s sets, with props by Lauren Davis, vary between the fully built, fully composed and well-detailed sets indicative of the forays into Sutter’s life and the others that involve maybe a set piece (like a bench or wedding arbor) and a projected backdrop. It’s the little things that go a long way in defining time, like the circa-1970s posters of Donna Summer, the Harlem Globetrotters and Diana Ross that appear on young Sutter’s walls, or the box of Mr. T Cereal right out of the ‘80s you spy in Sutter’s kitchen.
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Costumes, by Macy Lyne, are far-ranging and also detailed (yes, I’m looking at you ponytail holders with the balls on the ends). Though pink heels and a matching pink wig may be the most memorable costume elements of the evening, the reverend’s blue robe embellished with gold and a green sequin dress also catch the eye. But the awe-inducing were the half-and-half costumes worn during “Genitalia.”
Shawn St. John’s sound designs were strong, from the organ that emphasizes Reverend Benson’s sermon to the street noise that lends another layer of realism to “Mug.” Additionally, it should be mentioned that the production features some great and spot-on song selections during scene changeovers, such as “State of Shock” by The Jackson 5 and Mick Jagger, “Girls and Boys” by Blur, and “Got to Be There” by Michael Jackson, to name a few. Hudson Davis’s lighting completes the close-to-perfect appearance of the production, but a special mention goes to the moody, shadowy light in “Mug.”
In “Conference,” a playwright tries to explain what it means when they say people should “choke” on their writing. There’s a lot to chew on in Bootycandy, but what I can assure you now is that this is one to choke on. And you will choke so good.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at The MATCH, 3400 Main. Through March 10. For more information, call 713- 521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchouston.org. Pay-what-you-can; $40 suggested price.