The O’Mallerys are a run-of-the-mill white trash family with one distinguishing characteristic: they’re all addicts. Lillie Anne (Anne Darragh), the eldest sister in the clan, is determined to change their bad habits. She’s arranged an intervention for her meth-addicted sister Barbara (Susi Damilano). Along with her other siblings, Lillie Anne tells Barbara to meet them in the park for a family barbecue. Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue begins when everybody gathers there, all reluctantly, with their defenses up, preparing to do battle over their deception.
Did you pause at all after reading the term “white trash”? It’s a casual insult that derives its strength from the optics, the costumes, the setting and the character details. Before Barbara arrives, her two other sisters Marie (Teri Whipple) and Adlean (Jennie Brick), and their brother James T (Clive Worsley) join Lillie Anne on stage. Marie’s mouth is a smudge of red lipstick. Her stockings are torn, and her skirt is short and grubby. While she’s polishing off an entire bottle of whiskey, Adlean and James T confront her about the stash of meth in her purse.
Marie isn’t much better off than Barbara, but then neither is Adlean. Her drug of choice is sold at the pharmacy by prescription only. But it’s James T’s neck that looks the reddest. He pounds beer after beer and is always stoned. They all lack ambition and selflessness. Only Lillie Anne seems to have escaped the cycle of chemical dependency. Barbecue though isn’t interested in delving into the struggles of one dysfunctional family and their effort to overcome addiction. After the first scene ends, the lights fade out. When they come back up, the white O’Mallerys have been reincarnated as a Black family.
Describing the new group of O’Mallerys as “black trash” would instantly demean and dehumanize them. The word trash often sounds innocuous when applied to white families. Against this backdrop, the phrase suddenly stands altered. It’s offensive in the way a white writer might describe a black family as “ghetto”. The audience’s conception of both races subtly shifts when they’re placed this closely together and side by side. Barbecue also liberates each actor — they haven’t been directed to imitate their counterpart across the racial divide. The playwright demonstrates a parity between the casts by making the language sound colloquial whether it’s coming from a black or a white actor. They reflect back upon each other in parallel worlds that don’t collide — until the second act.
The great, gravelly-voiced Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe makes her Adlean ditzy in her own sweet way. We’re much more aware of Kehinde Koyejo’s Marie because her tall body and flailing limbs make an impression. She uses her stature more expressively than Whipple does — but she’s just as messed up. The most intriguing performance belongs to Halili Knox. Initially, her Lillie Anne is a dour killjoy sheathed in a pastel cardigan. But the actress lets herself get carried away by the momentum of O’Hara’s language. She calls up an inner demon and frees it from that dowdy façade. At the start, she doesn’t seem like a real O’Mallery. Knox confirms that Lillie Anne is just as damaged as everyone else by adding something deep and demented to her vocal register.
After the first act’s wicked crackling energy, the second swerves in a more sedate and obvious direction. What begins as an unsettling of racial stereotypes ends with a rather ordinary deus ex machina. It’s like touring the galleries of a Basquiat exhibit only to find that the back half is filled with Norman Rockwells. That energy came from the white cast mirroring the black cast and vice versa. It would be a spoiler to explain how the two Barbaras meet, not that they eventually do. But that how is the playwright tamping down a raucous, acerbic farce.
O’Hara had the means to open Barbecue up to further absurdities. I was hoping for a Pirandellian moment where both casts appear on stage at the same time, confused by the notion of their shared identities. He may have settled for a featherweight landing but the play’s attempt to overlap or merge certain strands of racial identity still carries weight. It’s hard to begrudge him, or these troubled souls, their happy ending.
Barbecue, through Nov. 11, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St., 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph