Words can scarcely describe exactly how glorious it feels to genuinely laugh again watching a play — and just when some of us were probably starting to forget what it was like to actually do so with such abandon. With all the divisive social and political issues consuming most of our attention in the “real world,” it’s often easy to lose sight of the fact that one of theater’s greatest strengths is as a form of escapism, too, not only as a platform to espouse this or that serious or significant cause or message.
It seems we’ve been programmed lately not to find any humor in, to make any light of, or to otherwise show any signs of the slightest disrespect toward this or that race or gender or sexual orientation or religious persuasion, out of fear that those responses could be tantamount to grounds for cultural cancellation. Thus, for the first few of the 10 or 12 vignettes that comprise the Actor’s Express comedy “Bootycandy,” in which several of the characters happen to be Black and gay, we’re uncertain and uncomfortable about how or whether to react to its many decidedly absurdist situations.
Take comfort, then, in the knowledge that Robert O’Hara, the writer of this wildly sarcastic play, is a Black man, as is Martin Damien Wilkins, who directs the frequently hysterical production. That effectively entitles every member of the audience to relax, take it easy, and go with the flow; if they’re allowed to poke fun at certain taboos, we’re free to join in the merriment without any sense of guilt.
The connective tissue in “Bootycandy,” however loose and tenuous, is the coming-of-age (if not quite the coming-out) of O’Hara’s protagonist, Sutter, who appears in roughly half of the play’s sequences at various different stages of his life. He’s represented here by Damian Lockhart, who isn’t the most compelling or charismatic of the five actors in Wilkins’ cast, but, for that matter, neither is the character the most interestingly conceived or written. Indeed, in several of the brightest and cleverest segments in the comedy, Sutter is never seen or even referenced.
One of those scenes, for example, envisions the Sunday sermon of a flamboyant minister that’s performed to a hilarious hilt by actor Charlie Thomas. What begins with addressing sundry letters he has received from a few of his parishioners — involving “freaky and twisted” rumors and innuendo about some of the church’s choir boys — eventually turns into a delirious “teachable moment.”
Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography
Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography
Thomas portrays multiple other roles, like the rest of the Express’ supporting ensemble: Caleb Clark, Asia Rogers and Parris Sarter. They are uniformly superb, but special mention is due the simply sensational Sarter. In one vignette, she and Rogers play a number of girlfriends gossiping on the phone about the preposterous name given to one of their newborn daughters. In another, as Sutter’s mother, she brilliantly commands the conversation around the family dinner table. In yet another, she returns (again with Rogers) as a grownup version of that unfortunately named infant from the earlier scene.
“Bootycandy” is very funny that way, both literally and figuratively. Thomas’ irreverent reverend also makes a welcome return later (quoting the gospel according to Cicely Tyson, no less). And, at the end of the first act, the lights come up in the theater and Clark, the sole white member of the cast, appears as the oblivious moderator of a panel discussion with his four co-stars, as playwrights whose latest works sound strangely similar to some of the sequences we’ve just witnessed.
O’Hara’s language is regularly coarse and explicit. And more power to Clark for his gutsiness, with regard to a protracted and singularly unpleasant nude scene late in the play. To be sure, the final two segments are, A, dramatically jarring and horrific, and, B, clumsy and anticlimactic following so much inspired comedy elsewhere in the process. Who wants or needs a heavy and serious message or moral from a satire called “Bootycandy”? We’ve already been getting enough of that these days from a whole slew of other more socially and politically correct shows as it is.
Through June 12. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $36-$38 ($20 for students). Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW. 404-607-7469. www.actors-express.com.
Bottom line: Ends with a disconcerting whimper, but otherwise thrives with a consistent bang.