Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Barbecue" at Mixed Blood Theatre

When you see as much theater as I do, you can often see where things are going. Not so with Barbecue at Mixed Blood Theatre. This play did something that theater rarely does - it surprised me. Surprised me in such a huge way that the play I ended up watching was not the play I thought I was watching at the beginning. Surprised me in such a wonderfully clever and challenging way that this post is going to be frustratingly vague and uninformative because I don't want to ruin that surprise for anyone. If you're intrigued, just go see the show and find out what I'm talking about. In addition to being surprising, Barbecue is also really funny and asks some tough questions. Questions about race, questions about our assumptions about race, questions about how different races are portrayed in the media, questions about truth, questions about drug and alcohol abuse, questions about family relations. There's a lot going on at this little family barbecue, and this incredible cast pulls it off brilliantly.

In the first act of Barbecue, we meet a hilariously dysfunctional Southern family, the kind of family that makes you feel like your own family isn't so bad. Responsible sister Lillie Anne gathers reluctant siblings James T., Marie, and Adlean together in the ruse of a barbecue to lure their drug addicted alcoholic sister Barbara to an intervention. Except that none of the siblings live in glass houses; James T. smokes a lot of weed, Marie drinks a lot and has a minor crack habit of her own, Adlean constantly pops pain pills prescribed for breast cancer, and Lillie Anne is a bit of a control freak. Still, they love their sister and see her going down a bad path, and want to pull her back. The interesting part of this unfolding story is that in alternating scenes, the family is played first by white actors and then by black actors. Why this is and what it means is explained in the second act, but I won't spoil it here. Suffice it to say that this construct challenges the audience and makes you think about how you might view this wacky family differently depending on their race.

Thomas W. Jones II, Regina Marie Williams,
Dana Lee Thompson, Aimee K. Bryant (photo by Rich Ryan)
Here's where things get tricky. Without giving too much away, Barbecue also comments on the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy and how Black stories get told in Hollywood vs. how white stories get told. It also references James Frey's 2003 fictional memoir A Million Little Pieces, and how we tell our truths, or maybe embellish our truths so that they'll elicit a greater response. And the things people will do for fame and money, for respect and critical acclaim.

Barbeque's language is raw and unfiltered, its characters rough and often unlikeable. But in the funniest, sharpest, most entertaining way. This ten person cast, playing different versions of five characters, is an embarrassment of riches. Each one is just fantastic and so much fun to watch, especially when you start pairing them and seeing the differences and similarities in performance. How fun to see the usually regal and dignified Stephen Yoakam as the foul-mouthed pot-smoking beer-drinking brother, with Thomas W. Jones II (who incredibly pulls double duty as director, keeping this crazy turning story on track) as his alter ego. Aimee K. Bryant and Sue Scott are a delight as the sister trying to keep her family in line (if the recent regime change at A Prairie Home Companion means more Sue Scott on our local theater stages, I'm all for it!). Lolly Foy and Dana Lee Thompson are mirror images as the chain-smoking pill-popping grandma (even if one or both are too young for the role). It's also great fun to watch Regina Marie Williams let loose and steal scenes as the sister next in line for an intervention, with the also hilarious Bonni Allen on the flip side. Fresh off her role as the sweet sister in Glensheen, Sandra Struthers is a revelation as the crazy over-the-top Barbara who knows what she wants. And Javetta Steele is fabulous in this multi-layered role that I don't really want to say to much about, but when the two Barbaras meet, it's pretty great.

Barbecue continues through October 16. Go see this hilarious, challenging, question-provoking, brilliantly acted play!

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