June 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard

Through July 3
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, NW

Phillip James Brannon and Jessica Frances Dukes in Woolly Mammoth’s ‘Bootycandy.’ (Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth)

Woolly Mammoth is wrapping up its season-long exploration of race, gender and sexuality with playwright Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy.” Comprised of 10 related vignettes, O’Hara’s fearless and very funny new work dives right into what it means to be black and gay in America — two subjects the 41-year-old playwright (he’s also the production’s director) has had a lifetime to consider.

As the title suggests, “Bootycandy” (a childhood term for penis used by the playwright’s mother and grandmother) confronts sexuality head on. Drawn loosely from O’Hara’s past, his refreshingly bold scenes are full of off-color laughs and scathing satire, but they don’t shy away from the heavier aspects of experience either.

When we first meet Sutter — the play’s imperfect hero and O’Hara stand-in played by Phillip James Brannon — it’s the ‘70s. He’s a chatty, Superman underwear-clad kid who is endlessly fascinated with his own bootycandy, always wondering what to do with it, how to take care of it and what ways it might help bring peace to the world. His harried mother (Jessica Frances Dukes) isn’t too sure what to make of her little boy, and as he grows older she remains equally mystified by his differentness.

Fast forward a decade to “Happy Meal” and Sutter is a sullen Jackie Collins-reading teen. At the dinner table he interrupts his mother’s loud talk to announce that a man followed him home from school. The revelation sets off a hilarious barrage of defeminizing remedies rattled off by his mother (this time played by Laiona Michelle) and well-meaning stepfather (Lance Coadie Williams) including no drama club, constant chores and throwing a ball. Through the humor, O’Hara (as playwright and director) and Brannon’s Sutter brilliantly atomize the scene with a mist of mystery and menace, hinting at the dangers that might come with the teen’s budding sexuality.

As the show moves forward, the little plays fit satisfyingly together like pieces from a puzzle. An early scene features a few ghetto gossips hilariously dishing a young woman who has named her baby girl Genitalia. That same unfortunately named girl appears later in the play as a not-to-be-messed with, fully grown, butch lesbian (Michelle again). Bald and sleekly suited, she stands on a Cancun Beach annulling her commitment to the woman she no longer loves.

Meanwhile, Sutter’s sexual odyssey continues. As he comes of age, he starts having sex with his closeted brother-in-law (Sean Meehan). In a darker episode titled “The Last Gay Play,” Sutter’s chance meeting with a nutty and briefly naked trick (also played by Meehan) presents him with an opportunity to get back at the world a little. Things get out of hand and the actors actually threaten to stop the show.

O’Hara effortlessly shifts from urban theater circuit (also known as modern chitlin’ circuit) humor to heartrending, more nuanced material and everything in between. Some moments of note include Williams’ tour de force monologue as an over-the-top fundamentalist preacher with a secret. Later in the play, four black playwrights (including an adult Sutter) unwittingly come together for a workshop moderated by a clueless white moderator. In a bit of meta-theatrical fun, each of the playwrights purports to have written one of the show’s segments.

The biting comedy is performed on a shiny stage beneath a shimmery proscenium arch (compliments of Tom Kamm) by a truly marvelous five-person ensemble who masterfully portray a much larger number of characters ranging in age, sexual orientation and in one actor’s case even gender. Kate Tuner Walker costumes the cast in spot on street clothes that perfectly place the action in the ‘70s, ‘80s, through to the present.

With “Bootycandy,” O’Hara puts it out there. And while some of the scenes hit better than others, the play never for a split second lacks for feeling or fun.

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