If you’ve ever been to a dysfunctional family gathering, then you probably already have a good idea of what the opening scenes of Barbecue, a play by Robert O’Hara now onstage through Theatre Raleigh, are like. What might surprise you, however, is that the actors onstage don’t stay the same throughout. In this wild ride of a play, directed by Aurelia Belfield, there’s a white family and a Black family . . . and they’re the same family, the O’Mallerys. If that sounds confusing, it’s really not. Funny lighting cues, courtesy of Jenni Becker, make for seamless transitions. Plus, the corresponding characters in each cast wear the exact same outfits. The hard part, though, is choosing which set of characters is most hilarious.
Across both versions of this family, the members curse, smoke, and squabble in the middle of a park, brilliantly designed by Benedict Fancy. There are picnic tables, trees, and even chirping birds in the background, all of which combine to make the setting feel as real as the fighting families.
The reason for all the fighting, at least on this day, is that Lillie Anne (Julie Oliver; Hazel Edmond), the most together of the O’Mallerys, has decided it’s time to hold an intervention for her sister, Barbara (Jenny Latimer; Lakeisha Coffey). The only problem is that all her other family members are troubled (and addicted) too, so the intervention doesn’t go as smoothly as one might hope. There’s a taser involved, as well as a barrage of fast-flying, hard-hitting insults and jabs. And, while it’s hard to say who’s the funniest, James T (David Henderson; Gerald Campbell) and Marie (Kelly Mizell; Eden Sharp) certainly generate a lot of laughs. Aldean (Ali Evarts; Kyma Lassiter) is funny too, but she spends most of her onstage time nodding off and falling apart, making viewers question which O’Mallery is really in need of the most help.
In fact, the laughs and jokes aside, this smart script generates a lot of questions. Viewers are subtly asked to think about generational addiction, class politics, and their own reactions to this fictional family. For example, which version of the family do you like more? Which version of the family do you care about more? Does the addiction aspect seem funnier or more tragic in one version of the family versus the other? And, the crown jewel of questions, why do you feel the way you do?
Just as viewers are contemplating all of these things, there’s an incredible twist in the story that turns the whole thing on its head. To say too much would reveal the shocking surprise that elevates this story to a new plane, but suffice it to say that the revealing second act generates a whole new set of thoughtful questions. It reflects on the all too common fad of transforming pain into entertainment and the often sobering reality of recovery. Cautioning viewers to always be mindful of what they see and the truths they accept, it’s a perfect commentary on blending fact and fiction in dangerous ways.
If all of that sounds super serious, it is, but that’s not to say that the play feels heavy. One of its greatest strengths (of many) is that it can study such serious topics under the guise of such fun. Barbecue offers plenty of profanity and lots of laughs. Yet, O’Hara’s script masterfully combines humor and social commentary in a way that feels effortless.
The production itself feels effortless too, belying the tremendous amount of work that went into it. Smooth transitions, believable performances, and expert direction come together and turn this complex story into something wonderfully cohesive and surprisingly easy to follow.
Barbecue marks the next-to-last entry in Theatre Raleigh’s outstanding 2023 main stage season, and it’s an excellent addition. It’s a testament to the new, often experimental, and always thoughtful theater that Theatre Raleigh gifts to our community. If you’re in the mood for something different, something daring, and something that hits the spot like a cold beer at a sunny barbecue, this play is for you. The show runs through October 29, and tickets are available here.
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