The Ringleader

Since childhood, award-winning playwright Robert O'Hara has marshaled the means to tell wondrous tales

Robert O’Hara, the 41-year-old playwright whose latest work, Bootycandy, is having its world premiere run at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is very familiar with ”3-ways.”

”It’s something that reminds you of where you were raised,” he admits. ”It’s also sort of an item that you only get now and then. As a kid I couldn’t really get it as many times as I wanted it.”

O'Hara
O’Hara
(Photo by Todd Franson)

O’Hara is of course talking about the famous Skyline Chili ”3-ways” of spaghetti, cheddar and chili, a steady staple in his hometown of Cincinnati.

He could’ve just as easily been talking about sex. He’s very familiar with that topic as well. Sex, after all, is Bootycandy‘s heartbeat. He’s explored slavery, time-travel and romance in Insurrection: Holding History, winner of the 1996 Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play. He found a curious and acclaimed bridge between Nazi Germany and the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind in Antebellum, a Woolly Mammoth world premiere in 2009. He’s seen a family repay a gruesome debt in the slasher flick, The Inheritance, which he wrote and directed. The Obie-winning director has plenty of topics to fill out his résumé, but this is likely his first artistic expression so dedicated to sex.

”’Bootycandy’ is a word my parents used for the penis,” explains the Brooklyn-based O’Hara. ”’Oh, did you wash your bootycandy?’ It’s the oddest thing on earth that my parents would tell the little gay boy ‘bootycandy,’ … just being told that.”

Obviously, the word never left O’Hara’s consciousness. Today it’s taken on greater meaning for him, as well as his audiences. As he directs his play, Bootycandy becomes the vehicle for exploring sex.

”Whether we know it or not, we’re one of the most outrageously sexual cultures,” O’Hara observes, sitting in the lobby of Woolly Mammoth one recent Friday morning. ”Whether we acknowledge it or not, it happens all the time. We like to pretend we’re not interested, but the first thing you do with new technology is figure out, ‘How can I get more sex from it?’ I’m dealing with that. How do we talk about sexuality?”

And talking about sex in O’Hara’s world can be both outrageous and innocent, a conversation that revels in equal-opportunity offenses.

Bootycandy is that sort of experience of seeing something really, really hilarious and vulgar at the same time. It is risqué and blue, but I think really, really funny,” he says. ”I think people will find something in it to love and something in it to go, ‘Oh, my God. Did you really have to go that far with it?’ But there’s also a story inside there.”

Just as there are plenty of stories inside O’Hara. From the fictional to the factual, O’Hara is a man who knows how to hold an audience. It’s no wonder his grandmother dubbed him ”The Ringleader” when he was just a little boy. Or that the professional accolades keep on coming.

METRO WEEKLY: Growing up in Cincinnati, what kind of family did you have? Nuclear? Single parent? Only child?

ROBERT O’HARA: My grandmother had 12 kids, and my mother was the oldest daughter. I had 11 uncles and aunts. I think they went there in the late ’50s, and they’re all still there, most of them. Before that, they were in Alabama and Georgia. When I was born, they were already heavily in Cincinnati. And they’re all certifiable nuts.

MW: Friendly nuts?

O’HARA: Mixed nuts. Some of them are friendly. Some of them are quite out there, actually.

MW: No belligerent nuts, I hope.

O’HARA: Absolutely. Mixed nuts includes belligerent nuts, crazy nuts, meek nuts, nutty nuts – all that.

My mother had me when she was younger, so I was an only child with a single parent until I was 6. Then I had a little brother and we were two kids with a single parent. My mother got married when I was 12, and she’s been with that person since. I’ve always had a sort of nuclear family that had its own sort of craziness, but there was a normality to it.

Going over to my grandmother’s house was a circus, which I loved. My grandmother always called me the ”ringleader.” I would go over there and just act out. It was a lot of fun. ”Ringleader” fits in that I was sort of bookworm-ish. I would make up plays and I would make up songs and sort of corral the cousins to do things in the backyard.

My grandmother was basically my babysitter. All the cousins went over to Granny’s. You could actually go about two doors up to my first school, so I would stay with my grandmother for the week and my mother would pick me up on the weekends; or she would drop me off in the morning and pick me up after school. My experience at my grandmother’s house is very connected to me.

MW: Now we’ll all want to picture her as some wise and wonderful matriarch. What was the reality?

O’HARA: She was not this evil lady, she was also not this, ”Come all around me and let’s have an Oprah moment.” It was not that. My grandmother could cuss up a storm. My grandfather could cuss up a storm. They cussed each other out every day and I would record them, because it was really, really funny.

MW: Seriously? You had a tape recorder?

O’HARA: Absolutely. I would go to the dinner table and put the recorder underneath the table and I would tape the family conversation. I had to be 5 or 6. I continued doing it till I was, like, 12, whenever I could get away with it.

MW: Do you remember why you started doing it?

O’HARA: Because my grandmother didn’t talk like a normal person.

I was going to school with all white kids and I was coming home to this woman who grew up in the South – and my grandfather and this crazy amount of uncles and aunts and cousins – and the language was just completely different. And it was a lot of fun. At 4 years old, I was going to school and cursing people out with these words I did not know. [My grandmother] would make up words. It was just the most incredibly colorful language, and I guess I just gravitated toward it. I think that’s why my plays have a lot of language issues. I like to make up words and put words together that don’t normally go together.

MW: Did that ever get you into trouble at school?

O’HARA: Yeah. [Laughs.] I think it was a reaction to the fact that I was small and skinny and bookish, so I couldn’t really physically fight. But I could fight with my words.

I guess I was loud and talkative. My family was loud and talkative, so I didn’t really think of it as a problem. My teachers did – because I would always give them word for word. There was no way they were just going to tell me something and I was just going to do it. I had a lot of questions, and I had colorful language.

MW: Granted, it’s a quiet Friday morning, but you seem fairly soft-spoken now.

O’HARA: Oh, I am. I sort of get that out of my system in my writing. I have no need for that in my real life [now]. I can be colorful, and I’m sure most people who have worked with me would say that I’m rather colorful. But I’m not this crazy guy. I think it’s been channeled into my work. People who meet me, and they have seen my work, they completely think it’s a different person.

MW: I interviewed Chay Yew in 2009 when he was here directing the world premiere of Antebellum, and he gave me this wonderful quote about the play: ”When else is there an opportunity to see hoop skirts, Nazis, gay people and mammies onstage at the same time?” Is that sort of the O’Hara signature style?

O’HARA: Yes. [Laughs.] I never write a play until there are at least 88 ideas bumping up against each other. Why have just one crazy person in the play? Make ‘em all messes and crazy, and then see what happens.

MW: I’m guessing the stories you’re trying to tell aren’t just about being wacky and crazy, though.

O’HARA: No. Rarely are they. They’re actually sometimes very dark. And I love history. Someone will look at me and see me and put me in a category, and my first instinct is to burst out of that category.

Every play to me is an experiment. When people ask me how I write, I go, ”Everyone is welcome and no one is safe.” That is something that I try to carry into my work. I try to find the beauty and the horror of events. It could be a horrific experience, but it’s going to be beautiful. What is that pull of watching something that you know is going to be a little bit uncomfortable, or a little bit horrific, or a little bit scary?

MW: Speaking of horror reminds me: You would’ve been living in New York during 9/11, right?

O’HARA: I was living in New York, but I wasn’t actually in New York. I was on a cruise ship with my family in the Bahamas.

MW: Frantically trying to get cell service?

O’HARA: Exactly. And my family saying, ”We’re going back to the slot machines. What are we gonna do? Build the building back up? You can’t be here all sad. This is vacation.” This was two days into the vacation. ”But I’m from New York!”

They were like, ”We understand, but what, you gonna be upset all day?”

There was a memorial service for five minutes, and then people walking right out to the slot machines, right into drinking some more. I guess it’s because it felt fake on television, watching it on a ship.

O'Hara
O’Hara
(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: That’s the play I want to see.

O’HARA: Most of the people on the ship were foreigners, and they were sad about it, but that didn’t stop people from partying, doing the conga line, all this stuff.

Most of my family was there. They were very happy that I was not in New York. Everyone was very sad, but the attitude was, ”There is nothing you can do.” But there was just something wrong with this slot-machine playing and this drinking going on when I know that there are now people missing loved ones in the city that I have to go back to. And just being on a cruise ship with my family, it’s like being locked in Times Square with a bunch of tourists and your family. It’s nuts.

MW: Continuing with the horrific, but moving to fiction, I want to know about your horror movie, The Inheritance. Is the ”slasher movie” genre one you grew up liking? All the Halloween movies? All the Friday the 13th movies?

O’HARA: Oh, I absolutely loved horror movies, because I was such a scaredy-cat. I was afraid of the dark. I would make up creatures and people in my room. It was ridiculous. But I love scary movies. The Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street – all those things.

The Inheritance was this thing, like, I had been waiting for something just out of the blue, to turn on the TV and [see], ”Oh, that’s a member of my family who just chopped somebody’s head off.” I’d been waiting for that to happen. I never really know what my family members are doing. I only hear about them after something outrageous has happened. And I’m like, ”Really? She burned the car and mistakenly lit herself on fire and had to go to the hospital?”

MW: True story?

O’HARA: True story. It’s just ridiculous. A fistfight at the funeral, over the body. There are all these sorts of different stories [I'm told], because I don’t go home on a regular basis. They would call saying, ”Guess what happened.” So The Inheritance was about, ”What would happen if your family was involved in a cult?”

MW: None of your family should take this movie personally, should they?

O’HARA: [Laughs.] No.

MW: Do they ask, ”Is that supposed to be my head on the stick?”

O’HARA: And, ”Why are you using my biography?” Some of their names are in the piece. It’s a catch-22. Either their name’s in it and they’re like, ”Why would you put my name in it? Where’s my royalties?”; or their names aren’t in it and, ”Why isn’t my name in it? When am I going to be in the movie?”

MW: How often do you make it back to see your family?

O’HARA: I’m in touch with them a lot. We just had the family reunion last year. That was a treat. But I don’t like Cincinnati. When I go back, I realize how segregated it is and how conservative it is. I get this feeling of wanting to get out every time I go there. I feel like I’m a stranger in a foreign land, actually. But it was a great place to grow up, I guess. I had a sort of different perspective than if I grew up in some major metropolitan city where I could do anything I wanted, be anything I wanted to be. I really had this need from a very early age to get out of Cincinnati as soon as possible.

MW: Where did you go?

O’HARA: I went to Boston, to Tufts University, to be a pre-law major. And then I was like, ”That’s not gonna happen.” Eventually I ended up in English. And I was like, ”That’s not gonna happen.” I ended up taking all these theater classes. I never thought I would be making a living doing theater. I like to do plays, I like to write, but I never thought I’d be a playwright. That never, ever crossed my mind.

MW: Why not?

O’HARA: It was my mother going, ”Are you out of your mind?” Every time I would go home, there was this black woman going, ”Are you out of your fucking mind? Are you crazy?” [Laughs.]

But I had always been doing that. I had written all my life. Directed and performed all my life. It was always a hobby, until I got to my junior year and realized that I actually could go into this as a business.

MW: What changed your mind to be a playwright?

O’HARA: It wasn’t playwriting — it was directing. I’ve always been a playwright. I could be a lawyer and continue writing plays. But to have a career, I always thought that I would have to be a director.

It was also around the time I was coming out to myself. I was sort of still in this, ”Oh, I’m gonna get married and have a wife and a kid and be a lawyer.” Once all those things started to break down, [I thought], ”Well, that’s never gonna happen, so now let’s just get real with it. I want to be a director and a writer and an artist.” It was part of my whole identity changing that allowed me to go.

I think what sparked it is that you had to choose a major in your junior year. It was my sort of relationship to, ”What am I going to do after I get out of here? Where am I going to live and what am I going to do?” And mind you, my entire college experience was, ”We don’t have enough money. I don’t know if you’re going to be there next semester. You have to get another work-study job. You have to get another loan.” Everything was money, money, money, money. I went to a very expensive school. But I didn’t give a fuck. There was no way in hell I wasn’t going to be there. It was all very much this madness.

My parents said to me, ”We can’t help you with graduate school.” I said, ”Fine.” I had written a play and it was very well received. The chairman of the department, Sherwood ”Doc” Collins, said to me, ”Robert, you are a really, really talented writer.” He was this old white man, sort of a legend. I was always terrified of him. He was this huge, hulking, Santa Claus of a man [who told me], ”You are amazingly talented.” I felt like he, his presence, challenged me to do more and to be more as an artist. That’s sort of when I really closed in around the fact that I could do this.

Doc followed my career for a number of years. I’d get these long letters from him after I got out of school, about work that I didn’t even know he had heard about. This was before people would write in the press, ”This sucked! And his name is Robert O’Hara.” He would write these long passages about something he’d read of mine. He was so amazing that he could be very critical, but very giving at the same time. When you have an old, white man say to you – about something that you think no one in their right mind would get – that he really, really loved it, it allowed me to go, ”Oh, wait a second. I’m valid? Even my sort of crazy Cincinnati homo self and my work can actually have a relationship to someone who’s completely the opposite of me?” It showed me the universality of writing, actually. It was just a really, really lovely relationship.

MW: The universality of your writing, specifically?

O’HARA: Yes. I always thought that my grandmother spoke in a weird way, an exciting way. But I realized everyone has those two sections. Everyone is different with their family, different in public, and we’re sort of carrying those two personas. We all have secrets, and we all have sort of those inner beings that come out whenever we’re in different situations. You can embrace them all. I think that’s what Doc showed me. I was obviously this gay, black kid – that he embraced completely. He embraced me as an artist, not just as a professor.

MW: So you continued to graduate school?

O’HARA: Right out of undergraduate. There was no, like, five years of ”let me go find myself,” and then graduate school. In graduate school, it’s all theater, all day, in New York at Columbia [University]. It was overwhelming.

At the end of my first semester, at my evaluation, the chair looked at me and said, ”Your teachers think you’re a little bit too focused on African-American and gay issues.” We’re sitting in Harlem. I’m the only black student in the department. I’m the only out gay student in the directing program. And you’re going to tell me that I’m too focused on African-American issues and gay issues? I had to laugh. ”Did you tell my colleague she was too focused on feminist studies and German expressionism?”

What it came down to was my professors would do things like, ”This week we’re going to do gay theater, and it’s going to be As Is and Torch Song Trilogy. Next week we’re going to do fathers and sons, and it’s going to be Edward Albee and James Baldwin.” And I’m like, ”Edward Albee and James Baldwin were faggots. I don’t know why they’re not in this week.” People are like, ”They’re homosexuals?” They’re challenging me about Edward Albee and James Baldwin being homosexuals.

They wanted to categorize everything, and I would always go, ”Wait a minute. You can’t put Tony Kushner just in that place and not in this place. You can’t put August Wilson and James Baldwin just in the ‘black place’ and leave them out of this place.” It was the absence of people allowing the otherness in the room.

What it is – because I’m teaching now – you have to evaluate every student. Obviously, I did not know. Everyone was older than me. I think what [the chair] was saying was, ”We want you to broaden yourself. We want you to read more Shakespeare and more Chekhov, Ibsen, stuff like that.” Of course, I was doing that. But because they had to evaluate me, they had to find out what I needed to work on. But I only heard, ”You’re too focused on blah blah blah.” And that led to my first play, which is about a Columbia student who goes back in time to slavery and falls in love.

MW: Regarding the black and gay focus, it seems that gay playwrights are really making their marks right now. Is this the decade of the black, gay playwright?

O’HARA: Every decade is the decade of the black, gay playwright! [Laughs.] That’s what you should say. Robert O’Hara says yes.

I don’t really know. I know a couple of black playwrights that are men that are not gay. But Tarell [Alvin] McCraney, Marcus Gardley, Tracey Scott Wilson…. I think it is the decade of the black, gay playwright. If that means I get more work, then, yeah, say that. [Laughs.]

But I definitely know that there are more white, straight men getting productions done about white, straight men than there are black people or women productions being done. That’s a fact. All you have to do is look at the brochures of theaters. In this city you can look at the brochures. And there are certainly more white people directing plays. I find it so odd that there’s this new fad of ”white women and black plays” or ”white people directing black plays,” and there’s no fad of ”black people directing white plays.” It’s like they’re perfectly fine to have a white woman direct some black play. But me? I would never get a call to direct a Sarah Ruhl play. I would never get a call to direct an Adam Rapp play. And I just find that odd. White women should be able to direct any play they want to fuckin’ direct. But why am I looked at as ”the black playwright”?

MW: What is the fit, exactly, with you and Woolly Mammoth?

O’HARA: They had the audacity to say, ”We’re going to put your play on, and we know you’re not done with it. And we don’t know what’s going to come out of it. And we know you’re Robert O’Hara.” That takes balls. [Artistic director Howard Shalwitz] allows me to be all of me. To not just be the black, gay playwright, but to be the intellectual. To be the complete zany guy. The sort of sad and lonely person at times. He allows me to bring all of myself into the room. I feel like I can do anything I want in there because they have said, ”We trust you and believe in you as an artist.” There’s no fear in that. It’s one of the places I can go and be all of me.

Bootycandy runs through June 26 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets, $30 to $65, are available by calling 202-393-3939 or online at woollymammoth.net. The website also includes a schedule of special programming during the run tied to Capital Pride.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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