Fort Worth — Playwright and director Robert O’Hara has been a rising name in theaters around the country for nearly a decade, but he hasn’t been introduced in North Texas—until now. We’re about to get a double dose of him: first with the regional premiere of his breakout play Bootycandy, a series of satirical vignettes about being black and gay, opening this weekend at Stage West in Fort Worth. Soon, he’ll be in North Texas to direct the world premiere of Kirsten Childs’ musical Bella: An American Tall Tale at the Dallas Theater Center, running Sept. 22 to Oct. 22. It’s a co-production with New York’s Playwrights Horizons in May 2017.
O’Hara, 46, grew up in Cincinnati, and took off for Boston and New York for college and career pursuits. His works have been produced at Playwrights Horizons, Primary Stages and various regional theaters—and he’s made a name as a director, as well.
Bootycandy premiered at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 2011, then had a production at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre in 2012, and finally off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2014. All three productions were directed by O’Hara. (He’ll also direct a production in Chicago in the upcoming season.) After Bella, he’ll continue work on the book of a new Broadway musical about “a major icon,” of which he can’t divulge the details yet.
At Stage West, Akín Babatundé directs the cast of Natalie Wilson King, Liz Mikel, Justin Duncan, Aaron Green and Djoré Nance. Mikel also appears in Bella, which is about an African-American woman travelling through the Old West who meets various characters of diverse backgrounds. O’Hara says he’ll see Stage West’s production of Bootycandy when he’s here.
We chatted with O’Hara about Bootycandy and Bella. You can also read a version of this interview in our content partner The Dallas Voice, here. You can also read Mark Lowry’s feature story about O’Hara in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, here.
TheaterJones: Bootycandy is autobiographical? The character of Sutter is you, right?
Robert O’Hara: It is based in autobiography, but not everything in it is exactly what happened with me. My doppelgänger would be Sutter, who is seeing things from a world that exists to him.
Did your mother really use the euphemism “bootycandy” for “penis”?
Yes, although after she [heard about] the play, she said that what she said was “bobocandy.” I had to pull it out of her memory.
The play comes from your experience of being both black and gay. You’ve always been black; when did you figure out that you were gay?
Both of them come from birth. I was born black and gay. I was not socialized to be gay. I always knew I was different; I was always interested in something that a lot of kids were not into. So I found myself in the theater, where a lot of gay kids seek refuge. I think my family accepted it when I came out in college. By then I was highly political, but I was always outspoken.
I wrote a letter to my mother and my father, I wrote them separately because I didn’t grow up with them. My mother called and left a voice message and asked if I was going to be wearing a dress, but then that she always knew I was gay. She ended up crying and said she would always love me. Now I think she loves my partner more than me.
Bootycandy is a series of 11 interconnected vignettes. Have your previous works played with structure and non-linearity in similar ways?
Bootycandy is a series of short pieces on a theme. Some of my plays are linear, and some are non-linear, but they all deal in the same way with history and family and sexuality and perspective.
You directed the first three productions in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. Did it change over that time?
It changed only slightly. I was allowed to develop it in D.C. NYC was an amalgamation of the D.C. and Philly casts. It was very much something that had institutional memory from previous productions. It was fun because we could not just change the play but go more in depth with what we had done before. I like directing the first workshop and the first reading. I’m a director and writer, so they help each other out.
My play Insurrection: Holding History, I directed at the Public Theater when I was 25. I wrote and directed that as my master’s thesis at Columbia, it was an MFA in directing. From early in my career, I’ve directed them all in some way.
How did you become involved with Kirsten Child’s Bella: An American Tall Tale, which you’re directing at the Dallas Theater Center? It is a co-production with Playwrights Horizons, with which you have a history.
Other than being a great fan of her, I’ve known Kirsten for a few years. We were introduced to each other by at Playwrights Horizons, she was at the opening of Bootycandy. She loved it, and I was a fan of her work. The timing on this project worked out.
With Bella, the first song I heard “Big Booty Tupelo Gal.” It was the fable that was exciting and set in a place where you don’t usually see people of color, and a protagonist of color.
The first act is the West, and the second act is at a circus and carnival; it’s a traveling musical. She meets people along the way. There’s an Asian character, a Latino character, there’s a high-class black person she meets. There’s a Native American person. They all evoke music, and it ends up being kind of an Americana type of music. It doesn’t have to be defined by any type of America.
The musical uses characters from mostly non-white origins in the experience of the settling of the Old West.
What it reminds me of is narratives that have all sort of been there from the beginning, like going back to The Wiz and through Hamilton; it’s bringing a story we thought we knew through a different lens.
The topic of casting in regards to race is a huge conversation now in the American theater. Hamilton retells American history through a different lens; and there have been controversies such as the casting of a white actor in the lead role of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first major musical, In the Heights, and the concert reading of The Prince of Egypt with white actors. What are your thoughts on this?
I was once the Scarecrow in [a production of] The Wiz that had a white Dorothy. White people playing people of color is not new; what is new is people of color are now [able to] own their own authenticity. White theater was created to reflect their audiences and white theater must deal with [changing audiences and perceptions]. … I think it’s about what the story requires, and what happens when you cast someone who could not be believable and who could not tell that story.
We are in new exploration of the multicultural experience. What’s exciting about watching Hamilton is that it teaches you how to watch other things from a different perspective. It opens the door for allowing other types of stories to be told.