Fire-related metaphors flow like clarified butter from “Barbecue,” Robert O’Hara’s bait-and-switch play that opened over the weekend at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
The rollickingly crass comedy, which skewers Hollywood image-makers even as it implicates us in its callously reductive stereotypes, starts out like a sitcom, with rat-a-tat pacing and overbroad characterizations.
There are plenty of laughs to be had as the play opens with a parade of archetypal and stereotypical trailer park characters who carry on like bats out of hell. The first person we see is James T. (Stephen Yoakam), the family’s oldest male, who likes to swig whiskey and who also takes a leak onstage. Other family members soon join him, including sassy sister Lillie Anne (Sue Scott), sweet-and-sour Marie (Bonni Allen) and tough Adlean (Lolly Foy). All of them are quick to let their middle fingers fly as they pick up on long-ago arguments and gnaw into one another the way family members who know one another’s secrets can.
But the action has a twist. “Barbecue” uses two casts — the trailer park white cast has a black match — to tell its story, at least in the first act.
And that tale is of a drug- and alcohol-addled family at a cookout in a park. The gathering is a ploy to stage an intervention for one family member, Barbara (Sandra Struthers for the white family, Jevetta Steele for the black one). She is an addict, and they want to get her into rehab very far away.
The second act, set a year earlier, offers a back story that sheds light on the crazy goings-on. It also pulls the rug out from under the audience. What we thought we knew we must now re-examine. Our laughs, which are aimed at the characters, not with them, die down as the play strives for its deep messaging.
Director Thomas Jones, who plays the black James T., does not hold back anything in his over-the-top staging. His characters — black and white — replicate all the buffoony, silly physicality that TV comedies have trained us to expect. He has some of the best actors in town for this effort, and they seem game enough. On the white cast, Yoakam, Scott and Allen try to imbue their characters with humanity. You can see the same for actors Regina Marie Williams, who plays the parallel Marie with big-eyed relish and lots of attitude, and Aimee K. Bryant, who invests the black Lillie Anne with punch.
Their work is not an issue in this postmodern fantasia. What makes “Barbecue” challenging and ultimately unsatisfying is that it walks a tightrope between condemning what it despises and reinforcing it.
Many of us who love the theater also long to feel that in the end, honor, justice and truth win out. “Barbecue” pokes a finger in the eye of those hopes. Its subject is the image-making factory that is Hollywood, where the story is paramount. Picasso famously defined art as the lie you tell to get to the truth. “Barbecue” says that in Hollywood, the lie you tell is to sell tickets and win Oscars.
It may be true, this bleak view of Tinseltown. But it’s one that dims our hopes.