Stoking the fires of a meta-‘Barbecue’ at Strawdog Theatre

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Whose story is it? Who has the right (and/or the clout) to tell it? And is any of it based in truth — or is it all just a giant pack of lies magnified by the so-called “reality TV” style that may have begun with Jerry Springer, but has since morphed into a driving force in this nation’s political and social life?

When: Through Sept. 30
Where: Strawdog Theatre at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted
Tickets: $45
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

Those are just a few of the questions posed in “Barbecue,” Robert O’Hara’s often shrill but also shrewdly outrageous look at racial stereotypes, family dysfunction and the quest for celebrity in “Middle America,” a land that is itself something of a well-honed fiction. The play, directed by Damon Kiely, is now receiving a ferociously acted Chicago premiere by Strawdog Theatre as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Lookout Visiting Company program at its 1700 Theatre.

Without giving away the many crucial elements of surprise here (in fact, so many spoiler alerts must be issued for this play that it is difficult to describe crucial aspects of the plot), it is fair to say that “Barbecue” trades in equal-opportunity stereotypes of race and class as it deals with everything from substance abuse, violence, family dynamics, money, Hollywood and the “embellished” aspects of contemporary memoirs, to the grand-scale desperation and vulgarity of contemporary American life. It also engages in a couple of “meta” tricks that deftly challenge the audience’s perception of what is “real” and what is being “performed.”

Celeste M. Cooper (from left), Terence Sims, Deanna Reed-Foster and Kamille Dawkins star in the Strawdog Theatre production of “Barbecue.” | Heath Hays

It all begins in a public park (designer Joanna Iwanicka’s spare set, with its idyllic overlook and picnic table, is just right), where what can disparagingly be described as a “low-life” white family has gathered in a state of conspicuous high dudgeon. Calling this unwelcome picnic “meeting” is Lillie-Anne (Barbara Figgins in a terrific take-no-prisoners turn), who has brought together her brother, James T (John Henry Roberts), and two sisters — Adlean (Kristin Collins) and Marie (Anita Deely) — to lay out her plan for an “intervention” designed to finally get another sibling, Barbara (Abby Pierce), long addicted to drugs and alcohol, into a rehab program.

Next scene? Same plot line, but this time it is a black family (with all the same character names), that has gathered in the park, with Deanna Reed-Foster as Lillie-Anne, Terence Sims as James T, Kamille Dawkins as Adlean and Celeste M. Cooper (in phenomenal, whacked-out form as the high-as-a-kite Marie). Barbara (nicknamed “Zippity Boom” for her drug-induced outbursts), is about to be dropped off by her no-good boyfriend and to be informed of the family’s plan to send her to a lavish rehab program in far-off Alaska. Before she arrives, the siblings rehearse their pleas to her in the form of fond childhood memories that are at once sweet, sad and crazy.

The third scene continues with this black family and the arrival of Barbara (Ginneh Thomas), about which no more should be divulged. Suffice it to say, in a tragicomic twist, Lillie-Anne (a very canny turn by Reed-Foster) ends up wagering everything of value in her life in exchange for the sobriety of all her self-destructive siblings. But be advised: Nothing is quite what it seems here.

The play’s second act flashes back about a year or so as O’Hara gives us a sharply limned “let’s make a deal” scene in which a glamorous black celebrity, Barbara (Thomas is ideal here), who affects an English accent, and proclaims herself  “a movie star singer,” faces off against the white Barbara (the wickedly good Pierce), who is now out of rehab and has a bestselling memoir to her credit. There is talk of a big movie deal and an Oscar in the future. A casting flip is about to be finessed, and this deftly written scene is brilliantly played.

The initial scenes in this production are so over-the-top, and performed at such an unrelentingly high pitch, that you might be tempted to tune the play out. But O’Hara ultimately wins you over by playing fast and furiously with the mutability of the races here, while also managing to find wildly comic elements in what is essentially a tale of ruinous social breakdown on every level. To be sure, by the end, no one in “Barbecue” is left uncharred.

NOTE: Beginning with its next production, Strawdog Theatre will operate out of its new permanent home in the space at 1802 W. Berenice formerly occupied by Signal Ensemble.

Abigail Pierce (left) and Ginneh Thomas in the Strawdog Theatre production of Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue.” | Heath Hays

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