So much of life is delusion. – Zadie Smith, The Fraud
Summer may have ended, but Theatre Raleigh’s production of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue will take the chill out of the air. The setting is a public park somewhere in mid-America, splendidly designed for this stage by Benedict Fancy, complete with a chain link fence, metal picnic benches and leafy trees. Here, the O’Mallery siblings have gathered to conduct an intervention with another sibling. Barbara, better known as Zippity Boom, suffers the problem trifecta: crack addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. Having already lost two siblings, the eldest and practical-minded sister, Lillie Anne, is determined to not lose another. However, her siblings may not be totally on board with this plan.
As her brother, James T (David Henderson), so colorfully notes in the beginning, “We ain’t no normal gatdamn family and we ain’t never been no normal gatdamn family, but all of a sudden y’all read a book or see a TV show and y’all wanna gather up and act like we a normal gatdamn family.”
A quick peek at the program confirms that the O’Mallery clan may just be a bit different since character names are duplicated: given to pairs of white and Black actors. The doubling of the family members continues the narrative, first as an all white group, and then switched to an all Black group. Same attitudes, even cleverly costumed similarly, but a not so subtle racial undertone has been added that changes how the humor lands. Do our feelings shift towards the difficult situations and fraught family dynamics based on skin color?
And yet the dysfunctional scenario that unfolds feels uncomfortably familiar. They are a family on the lower end of the social economic scale, each member trying to get through the day. They smoke, curse and fight to great comedic effect, complaining, and finding fault with each other. And how is Barbara, aka Zippity Boom, going to react to this intervention?
And O’Hara isn’t finished toying with his audience’s perceptions. He proceeds to unleash an entertaining and thought-provoking dissertation in the second half, challenging issues of storytelling, fact vs fiction, and which “color” of narrative sells in Hollywood. It’s a smart, sophisticated, and supremely humorous dramatic feast that this ensemble of actors executes to perfection.
Under the superb eye of director Aurelia Belfield, the profane banter of the siblings is marvelous to watch. This group understands comic timing, landing barbs, generating real laughter, and pushing the audience to consider these characters as individuals. Both David Henderson and Gerald Campbell lean into the scrappy, brother role of James T; Julie Oliver and Hazel Edmond shine as Lillie Anne trying to corral her siblings; Kelly Mizell and Eden Sharp are hilariously sassy as Marie; while Ali Evarts and Kyma Lassiter show off their talents with Adlean who also might need an intervention.
Jenny Latimer and Lakeisha Coffey get their moment as Barbara in the second half. Both deliver exceptional performances that truly elevates the entire show. More importantly, they emphasize the role of color in storytelling as well as how race is weaponized. O’Hara’s script is a brilliant mix of comedy and social commentary.
Compliments are also in order to Jenni Becker for her exceptional use of lighting to mark transitions, and to Michael Betts for his hallmark layering of realistic nature sound effects. Kishara McKnight deserves a shoutout as well for the marvelous matching pairs of outfits.
As usual, Theatre Raleigh has offered another finely produced show that checks the boxes for being thoroughly entertaining, provocative, and meaningful. The state fair may be over, but Barbecue will deliver a scintillating ride of its own.