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In SF Playhouse’s ‘Barbecue,’ Everyone’s Got Beef

A family intervention goes down the rabbit hole.

Lillie Anne (Halili Knox, right) explains to Adlean (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe), James T (Adrian Roberts), and Marie (Kehinde Koyejo) how an intervention works in Barbecue at San Francisco Playhouse.

 

It’s practically impossible to say much about Barbecue, Robert O’Hara’s 2015 production getting its West Coast premiere at S.F. Playhouse through November 11, without spoiling much of what audiences will likely take home from it. This is a play where abrupt left turns are the norm; the lights go down, and when they come back up, there’s absolutely no telling where, or when, or with whom you’ll be next.

The play, or at least the more-or-less straightforward first act, unfolds as a poor white Midwestern family braces for an intervention for their crack-smoking sister, which they’ve disguised as a family cookout in the park. (Lillie Anne, nominally the most “together” member of the family, and the brains behind the scheme, says she’s seen these sorts of interventions on TV.) It’s clear from the nonce, however, that none are in a perfect position to cast the first stone; between them, the four siblings are all dealing—or not dealing—with their own vices. And then, suddenly, the lights go down for the first of many hard turns.

We return to the same park and essentially continue the first scene. Although now the family has been replaced by their black counterparts, who carry the scene onward. Back and forth we go like this, the white-trash family replaced by and then tagging back in for a similarly destitute team. (Is it OK to call them “black trash,” if their white equivalents clearly are?)

The racial mirroring continues into the gonzo Act II, and underscores some interesting parallels about addiction and its effects. But any morals or lessons we’re asked to take away seem to get bogged down in the whiplash plot twists; it’s not unlike an improv troupe taking its first premise—white and black families dealing with a fraught intervention—and constantly one-upping it. Now she’s a what? And we’re where?

There’s also an issue of language to consider here. I’m not talking about the cussin’, either. O’Hara, who wrote the play—and who is a gay black man—is clearly playing with issues of language and race intentionally, but I’ll admit to getting a little queasy at hearing middle aged white ladies calling people “ho.” Does that make me a prude? Should I laugh at the casual sort of alcoholism and drug addiction that’s on display here? Are we to pity these people, identify with them, or be revolted? That much isn’t entirely clear. (And don’t get me started on the missed opportunity to play Wendy Rene’s soul classic “BBQ.”)

Still, Barbecue has its moments. Halili Knox and Kehinde Koyejo, as two of the black sisters, are great. And Margo Hall (who directed), playing a black actress who appears in Act II and who hopes to adapt the tragic proceedings of Act I into a film, is able to ground her Whitney Houston-esque diva character in real emotions. There are laughs to be had here, as long as you feel OK about doing it. No one said this was going to be a picnic in the park.

Barbecue at the S.F. Playhouse, through November 11. sfplayhouse.org

 

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