Review BARBECUE – Strawdog at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater

Review BARBECUE – Strawdog at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater

(L to R) Abigail Pierce, Barbara Figgins, Anita Deely, John Henry Roberts and Kristin Collins. Photo by Heath Hays.

By Erin Shea Brady

This is a sensitive time to make plays. In reaction to all that’s happening politically and artistically — progress and regress alike — many theater artists, myself included, are working hard to answer the questions, “Is this a productive story to put into the world right now? Is this responsible representation? Are we considering our biases, speaking to a diverse audience, and being as inclusive as we can?” These questions are vital. And it is entirely possible to get so wrapped up in them that we forget to make plays that are also entertaining.

It’s hard to know what to say about Strawdog Theater’s production of Robert O’Hara’s BARBECUE, because its genius is in subverting expectation. Without spoiling the twists and turns of plot, here goes:

BARBECUE is not a heavy-handed play. It doesn’t tiptoe. Its soapboxing is satirical, but its message is entirely progressive. It’ll make you think, and it’ll make you laugh. In the case of (both versions of) the O’Mallery family, no one is immune to blistering insults. Each person we meet is more of a mess than the last. And the major takeaway, which is wholly unsentimental in its delivery but poignant upon reflection, is that people are just people and people are fucked up. Addictive behavior, desperation, volatile family dynamics, the quest for certainty — we see white people deal with these afflictions on TV all the time. It is just as entertaining, just as captivating, and just as ridiculous to watch black people navigate these same, human trials. O’Hara’s intention is to counter the television trope of “white people doing shit” with white people and black people doing shit. The result is the most I’ve laughed in a theater in a long, long time.

Director Damon Kiely and the Strawdog crew have assembled a captivating cast and production team. Anita Deeley and Celeste M. Cooper are standouts as Marie, but really, the whole raucous group is a total joy to watch. The only trouble is, the O’Mallerys are so hilariously unhinged, we don’t want to leave them, and the second act is less engaging than the first. The writing, which is otherwise wonderfully weird, briefly falls flat. But it picks up again as yet another twist unfolds.

It’s a tricky world to build, and the design is on point. Particularly in the case of the lighting design by Jared Gooding and costume design by Aly Renee Amidei. What feels off at the start begins to make wonderful sense as the play unfolds.

Strawdog and Kiely have given us a beautiful, rare, and unapologetic blend of responsible theater-making, social commentary, and pure entertainment. BARBECUE is not to be missed.

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.