Barbecue: An Exploration of Believability, Race, and Drug Abuse

Photo by: Naomi Ishisaka

Photo by: Naomi Ishisaka

Robert play Barbecue dives into the dynamics of a not all that common American family. The audience is introduced to a white family of 5 siblings whose entire lineage is plagued by addiction, most notably Barbara (otherwise known as Zippity Boom). Zippity Boom’s recent addiction to crack, in addition to her alcoholism, has spurred her siblings to throw her intervention disguised as a Barbecue. Upon Zippity Boom’s arrival she quickly learns the true intention of the event, and runs off stage into a black out. When the lights come up on the scene, the audience is met with a completely new cast, all of whom are black. Despite this dramatic change, which introduces its own commentary on race relations and drug usage within the black community, the relationships established by the previous family remain-this is still a family in crisis, staging an intervention. With each new scene, the cast switches from white to black and then black to white. The end of Act 1 brings a huge surprise: black Barbara is bound to a post and as the duct tape is removed her mouth, her very first line in the entire play is, "Cut!". A movie crew rushes onto the stage, what was thought to be an errant aspect of stage design is revealed as a light-boom, and all of the actors onstage are now all actors...on a film set? With the arrival of Act 2, it is revealed that the black family we've been watching or the last hour is actually a movie portrayal of an original white family. White Barbara's family, in fact. During a sting in rehab, white Barbara has written a memoir detailing her descent into addiction and her intervention/Barbecue. The black actress who plays Barbara while at her own rehabilitation reads the memoir and decides to produce and star in the movie adaptation of Zippity Boom’s memoir. As our two get to know each other through the film production process they begin to discover their similarities. They both admit to have been living a lie. Black actress playing Barbara is rumored to be a lesbian, though she lives a heterosexual façade. White Barbara admits to the fabrication of many of the details in her memoir relating to drug addiction, her family, and the intervention/Barbecue. The two also reveal to each other that even after their drug rehabilitation, they are still drug users.

By the end of the play, none of the character’s identity is truly known by the audience. Our two main characters are self-acknowledged liars, making everything they say about themselves and every way they conduct themselves up for scrutiny. The discussion of how reality is manufactured and how people stretch truths to conform to is what makes Barbecue such an engrossing play.

This curtain of ambiguity created between the audience and the play creates an interesting situation in which the audience is unsure of its ability to confidently believe in what a character is saying. After so many of the characters have proven to be liars, at what point can the audience continue to root for and believe in these characters? The discussion created by this disbelief however is very powerful. As with our two Barbara’s, both of their lives were changed by a memoir made up of lies and “stretches of the truth”. It does beg the question though, is it entirely necessary these pieces be completely truthful? If they accomplish their goal, changing an individual’s life for the better, does its lack of complete truth affect its power to do so? I thought they did a great job of exploring this question without pounding too hard on the idea that we are never sure of who exactly a character is. In Act I, the white Barbara, or Zippity Boom as the family has lovingly nicknamed her, and her family are shown as the grandiose, exacerbated versions of themselves which are featured in the memoir she later writes. When we truly meet her family in Act II, the brief moment left us wondering if we happened to catch them on a good day, or if the addiction to prescription to pain killers, alcoholism, and minor crack habit were all a part of the creative liberties Zippity Boom took when writing her memoir. The black Barbara’s identity is never truly known either. She shrouds herself in this picturesque veil of wealth, performance skill, and heterosexuality. She views these aspects of herself to be digestible by society, and what will continue to propel her to her goal of achieving an Academy Award. When her sexuality is questioned, she brushes off the question, saying she cannot allow another aspect of her life to enter her limelight. This opaque covering each character, and the play itself, has surrounding them is what allows the production to create the commentary it does on authenticity, and the projection of oneself to the world.

Barbecue additionally discusses race relations in a subtle and non-abrasive manner, in contrast with the all too prominent socio-racial agendas of many contemporary works. For instance, in the beginning of Act II, we finally meet Barbara as the singer-actress she truly is, rather than a black-counterpart for Zippity Boom as she appeared as in Act I. As she and Zippity Boom discuss her pre-rehab life, Barbara begins making revisions to Zippity Boom’s memoir to fit the all black film she plans to produce and star in. The actress Barbara is more focused on the film being believable rather than factual, which pushes her to make the alterations she does to the memoir. Zippity Boom however is much concerned that her memoir, which is her life’s work and a main contributor to her recovery from her pre-rehab life, be properly portrayed on the big screen. Offended by the rebranding of her life, White Zippity Boom objects to these changes, even going so far as to say to Barbara, how are you going to play me, you’re black. Barbara responds with, I’m not black, I’m an actress. This reverses the trend in which white actors are given roles intended for people of color, and the casting decision is defended by the claim, “It’s not about race, they’re just the right actor for the role”. This rare reversal in which a black woman plays the role of an originally white individual, is rich. It creates an incredibly subtle but important discussion of the casting of people of color in the acting industry, and the instinctual leaning by casting directors to cast white actors over people of color.

The presence and usage of the black bodies in this production creates a commentary that does not berate the audience, while also not leaving the audience craving some sort of discussion. Barbecue carefully balances its discussion of blackness, particularly the perception of the black community and its relationship to drugs, violence, and recovery, with discussion of an individual’s credibility and its effect upon their surrounding world.

  • Produced by: Intiman
  • By: Robert O’Hara’s
  • Directed by Malika Oyetimein
  • Dates: May 30th – June 25th
  • Venue: Langston Hughes Preforming Arts Institute
  • Review Lead: Anthony Reynolds / Review Team: Steph Hankinson, Emily George and Laura Chrisman