|Teri Whipple, Clive Worsley, Anne Darragh & Jennie Brick|
We are here “to encircle with truth and love today in the open air ... Today, we step in.” So says a sister to three of her adult siblings gathered together in a city park setting where the main features are a chain-link fence, a picnic table next to the public bathrooms, and a rusty grill ready for a barbecue. The “step in” she is proposing is “an intervention” with a fifth member of their brother/sister group on this, her birthday -- a sister they all call “Zippety-Boom” whose crack and alcohol habits have landed her too often on some street curb ranting at passers-by. That the other siblings have their own excessive habits of popping pain pills like jelly beans, downing Jack Daniels like it was soda pop, or going through cans of beer like there is no tomorrow somehow fails to register with them as anything but normal. And while the one sister named Lillie Anne is zealous to save poor Zippety-Boom, the other three seem more in line to agree with James T’s conclusion of “Why on God’s green earth do we still give a damn?”
And so opens Barbecue, Robert O’Hara’s bitingly hilarious, incisively irreverent, and deliciously raunchy look at one family, its convoluted relationships, and the individual and collective excesses, prejudices, and self-destructive behaviors of its members. San Francisco Playhouse opens the company’s fifteenth season with a production guaranteed to send waves of laughter, shock, and surprise while at the same time challenging its audiences’ assumptions concerning race, poverty, and the core family in today’s America.
|Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Adrian Roberts, Kehinde Koyejo & Halili Knox|
Two Midwestern families – one white and one African-American – alternate scenes populated with bags of chips, drugs, and booze, each family dealing with the same issue of a how to convince a sister to enter a rehabilitation center (one that happens to be faraway in Alaska). That each member of the two families also shares the same name and biases of a likened member of the other family as well as mirrors the person’s quirky behaviors, overuse of foul language, and a tendency to talk only in shouts and screams is just the first twist and turn of many to come in this brilliantly written, superbly directed production. Every time it seems that we as audience finally figure out what is actually going on, another birthday balloon pops; and the story takes a 180-degree turn in a hilarious direction totally unforeseen. This is a play where as audience we need seat belts to ensure we do not fall out of our seats; for the ninety-minute ride is full of swerves, bumps, and sudden stops and starts. All we can do is hold on and laugh with eyes ever opening wider in disbelief of the newest revelation.
Margo Hall not only directs this fast-paced, two-act play with incredible ingenuity and insight (and a flamboyant penchant for the brazen and the bizarre), she also stars as one of the two Zippety-Booms (Z-B’s given name at birth being Barbara). She and Susi Damilano are both exceptional in their parallel roles as the fallen sister who has such unpredictable tendencies for wild, explosive reactions that brother James T -- or should I say, both brothers James T – has brought along a Taser gun just for insurance. For all the surprise their siblings are looking to spring on each of the two drug-addicted Barbaras (equine therapy, yoga, and a ropes course in Alaska, for example), both Barbaras have some shocks of their own that will leave family members and audience members equally reeling in stunned astonishment.
Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts play the lighter and darker skinned versions of James T, and each comes hilariously close to embodying one of Lillie Anne’s descriptions of James T: “You are in your trailer-park, ass-hole time of life.” Give each a beer (or two or six), and even the whiter will probably agree with the blacker’s response to a sister’s plea to help her corral Barbara onto an Alaskan-bound plane: “I ain’t gotta do nothing but be black and die.”
Pills spill out of their hiding spot in her cleavage while ash falls from an ever-present cigarette. That is true for each of the two Adeline’s (Jennie Brick and Edris Cooper-Aniforwoshe), and both have verbal venom ready to spill faster than vodka does from her glass whenever aroused by any of the other siblings, especially James T. “I’ll beat you ‘til I see white meat” is just one of many threats that come from both of their foul-language-filled mouths. Both actresses are a hoot as they sit on their folding chair thrones huffing and puffing their cynic-filled sentiments.
|Terri Whipple, Clive Worsley & Jennie Brick|
In fringed cut-offs barely covering what is supposed to be covered, each Marie (Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo) is so tightly wound that the spring is just about to pop as they both bounce all around the park setting, chugging Jack Daniels and clutching a purse whose contents surely include powdered substances no police officer should see. The f-word falls freely from their lips at a volume anyone within blocks must surely hear, and each actor draws constant audience heehaws for her crazy, twisted antics.
As do-gooder Lillie Anne, Anne Darragh and Halili Knox each has the near-impossible job of convincing her boozy, druggy, leave-me-alone siblings to help in saving Barbara. But each has a few tricks up her sleeve and some convincing reasons for their cooperation – just more of the ongoing, unexpected revelations that keep this production sizzling and popping like a string of firecrackers.
Bill English has once again designed a superbly perfect set – this one so realistic that we can almost smell the foul scents coming from the park’s bathrooms that border much too closely to the snack-laden picnic table. Brooke Jenning’s costumes are right off the shelves of some discount store in a strip mall and provide their own laughs even without any scripted lines. Cliff Caruthers and Wen-Ling Llao’s designed sound and light respectively leave no doubt that we are somewhere deep in America’s southern middle where the sun shines hot, bright, and sticky and where the music is always loud and blaring.
For all that this review has said thus far, the details are only the tip of the iceberg for what really happens in the bulk of the play. Using what is now an outdated Disney term, this is an “E-ride” that is not to be missed since it cannot be described without experiencing. San Francisco Playhouse has a winner that sets the bar high for this fifteenth season, and my guess is that any one who sees Barbecue may still be laughing and shaking a disbelieving head all the way until the end of the six-play season.
Rating: 5 E
Barbecue continues through November 11, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli