“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
Why is it that relationships among family members can be so much more rancorous than those with unrelated people? In part, it is because we are stuck with family, while we can disassociate from “friends” if relationships deteriorate. The stakes are also higher within families with matters of inheritance and other allocations of family assets often driving deep wedges between relatives. Although it is declining in importance in American society, family reputation and honor can power relationships outside of the family, so we are colored by our clan membership.
Robert O’Hara’s hilarious and insightful Barbecue takes place in a single setting at a somewhat seedy public park where families and other groups gather for picnics. The playwright explores the relationships within two dysfunctional families, each comprised of five adult siblings. Along the way, he disabuses us of our self-righteous perceptions about our freedom from prejudice.
Both families are plagued by addiction problems and fractiousness. With one family member totally out of control in each, a control freak tries to organize activities and guide the direction of the family, with great resistance along the way. A barbecue at the park is the scene of the effort to reel in the most wayward family member. The siblings argue, frolic, squeal, and debauch as they wait for the guest of honor. And, oh yes, one family is white. The other family is black.
It’s difficult to discuss the play without giving too much away. But it should be no secret that the playwright is addressing race relationships and perceptions. Prejudice exists at all levels of society, but the most virulent in the white community comes from the less educated, lower socio-economic sectors of society. Why is that? Viewed objectively, blacks and whites at the lower rungs share many of the same problems and have somewhat parallel existences. Perhaps the driving factor is that the less privileged always seek to have someone to look down upon. They are unable to appreciate that they are looking down at a reverse image of themselves. More remarkable about white America’s inability to see its own demons on the same level as blacks is when an implicitly racist federal law was inexplicably passed in 1986 providing hugely longer prison sentences for crack cocaine (blacks’ preference) versus powder cocaine (whites’ preference) possession.
In another thread, O’Hara ridicules the entertainment community. He skewers their integrity, their greed, their self-indulgence, and their exaggerated sense of self importance. In the context of closing a movie deal involving a very large sum of money (yes, this is the same play), we find two women, a black diva and a white writer in confrontation, driven by self-image and self-delusion. We also find that addictions extend beyond drugs and alcohol.
Overall, this play is peopled with characters most of us would not wish to befriend. They are vulgar and mostly self destructive except for those who are domineering. Although we may not like the characters and largely can’t relate to them, they do spark our interest and curiosity, and they are written with clarity and played with great verve. The playwright provides structural surprises and plot twists that make for an enjoyable entertainment with some moral values mixed in.
Margo Hall, who also directs with assurance, and Susi Damilano head a talented cast that offers spot-on depictions of yahoos of both colors. Bill English’s fitting set gives them venue for their indolence, stupor, and stupidity.
Barbecue by Robert O’Hara is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and plays at its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through November 11, 2017.