The reverend of a black church steps up to the pulpit and reads a letter from members of the congregation complaining about the "perverted" behavior of some of the church's choir boys. The letter alleges the boys have been seen eyeing one another, even kissing, touching. One of those choir boys, seated behind the reverend, stares at his feet. He and the audience brace themselves, ready to for humiliation, punishment, and exile.
Instead, the reverend lifts up his robes to reveal six-inch heels. He pulls a curly blonde wig over his head and unzips his robes to expose a tight red dress that really does his hips justice. He proceeds to praise the gospel of RuPaul, his voice soaring, on fire. The choir boy stands up and dances by the reverend's side. A parishioner faints.
This is about as indulgent as Robert O'Hara's comedy "BootyCandy"—or for that matter, anything—gets. Presented as the official play of Baltimore Pride by Iron Crow Theatre at Baltimore Theatre Project, "BootyCandy" is both a celebration of the playwright's experience growing up gay and black and a diagnosis of the friction those identifiers and communities produce when they overlap.
See, this scene with the Reverend Ru (played by Jared Swain, who throughout the production astonishes as a hyper-versatile performer) feels far less absurd than later on when the choir boy, Sutter (Justin T. Bell), sits with mother (Jey Holman) and stepfather (Swain again) at the dinner table, looking up from his Jackie Collins book to inform them he was followed by a man today, only to be interrogated about his behavior—he must have been doing something to get that man to follow him. And then, a barrage of demands: no more musicals; take up some sports; no more books, especially Jackie Collins. Then, out of nowhere from stepdad: "—and stop playing with my anal beads!" (There's no follow-up here, by the way.)
To be clear, O'Hara isn't merely admonishing the pervasive (and apparently hypocritical) homophobia in many black families and communities—there's plenty of familial love here, too, and white people are certainly not off the hook. Halfway through the play, we learn that the vignettes we've seen thus far are actually short plays-within-a-play, each penned by a black playwright. These writers find themselves at a playwriting conference, where they are the panelists and an incompetent white man is the moderator. The moderator (Jesse Marciniak) hits them with cringeworthy questions one can safely assume O'Hara himself has received like, why are you black and have an Irish last name? Your play features four black women talking on the phone, so it's about race, right? Your one-man play stars a white male actor as a guy imploring an invisible character not to mug him, so it's about a white man, right? O'Hara again rewards the characters' and audiences' discomfort not with real resolution (the chances of a preacher coming out to his congregation in full drag are slim) but with chimera: Through chanting, the exasperated playwrights will the smarmy moderator into deserved asphyxiation.
Though the characters find themselves in such ridiculous situations infused with fantasy—which, once we understand the vignettes as pieces in a metaplay, appear consciously driven by wishful thinking—O'Hara, director Brandon Rashad Butts, and the cast instill the scenes with a sober realism, the kind that conveys that yes, this is all bonkers, but it's everyday—an evolution from O'Hara's debut, totally off-the-wall time-travel adventure "Insurrection: Holding History," which Baltimore saw staged by Annex Theater in 2015. Justin T. Bell quickly makes Sutter compellingly familiar as a boy learning how to care for his "bootycandy"—his dick—from his mother (Aquirra Lundy), to a young man finding comfort in the hilarity of his grandmother's (Swain) unfiltered wisecracks, to a playwright working through his own trauma and desire, pain and pleasure, through art.
During Pride celebrations, which are just as capable or homogenizing the queer experience (into the rainbow-hued and glitter-dusted white gay cismale narrative, usually) as they are testaments to the complexity of queer life that not one nor a hundred narratives can begin to touch, "BootyCandy" strikes at the often unnavigable intersections in one man's identity and comes up with fragments. The pieces, we observe, are tricky to hold in place, let alone fit together, as they continue to splinter off. And that's the joke.
"BootyCandy" continues June 14-18 at Baltimore Theatre Project. For more information, visit ironcrowtheatre.org.