Interview with Robert O'Hara, Part Two: "Everyone is Welcome, No one is Safe"
Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback sits with Playwright/Director Robert O'Hara. This is the second part of his interview.
Walter Bilderback: Your plays have run a gamut of subject matters and historical settings. Your first play, Insurrection: Holding History, was about a young gay Black man who takes a wrong turn after a family reunion and finds himself in the middle of the Nat Turner uprising. Antebellum bounces back and forth between Nazi Germany and Atlanta the night of Gone With the Wind's premiere, with a transsexual Black cabaret artist connecting the two stories. Etiquette of Violence imagines the later life of Walter Younger's son from A Raisin in the Sun. What draws you to stories? Do you feel you have a "style" as a playwright?
Robert O'Hara: What draws me to each of my plays is a collection of questions that many times I don't even know I'm asking. My brain is filled with What Ifs and Whys and what I like to call "Who shot Johns." I like history because it allows me to play with expectations and realities. I like creating alternative histories and I think that’s because in many ways I feel like I live in an alternative present. I get to go to these wonderful places and explore my creativity and that simply is not most peoples reality. As for my style. . . I've always thought of my work as the Theater of Choke: I want to choke my audiences. Just so it’s not easily digestible and therefore forgettable. I want them to have to work my plays inside them and feel themselves gasping for air. So if I have a style of writing, I guess it would be. . . Autoerotic Asphyxiation. LOL... yeah that’s my style.
WB: When you directed Bootycandy last year at Woolly Mammoth, you were also writing the play during rehearsals. You've told me that this production gives you the opportunity to "activate it" as a director. Could you talk a little about your thinking? Are there ways in which this production will be different from the Woolly production?
RO: Well one of the main ways it will be different is that for the most part its a whole different set of designers and actors, therefore the look and pace of the show will be completely different - it’s a completely different interpretation. And I've directed all of these actors before, which was not the case at Woolly. Our relationship will be at a more advanced state and we can now build upon what I learned about the show at Woolly: I don't have to worry whether a scene works or not, but rather HOW to make it work BETTER, how to "activate" it so that it pops higher than the first go round. Essentially, I can detonate the play in a different way because I now know where the land mines are in the piece for the audience.
WB: During auditions you talked about “fools.” What is the importance of the fool in theater for you?
RO: A lot of my work absolutely requires Fools... Both comedic and dramatic Fools. I require people to do things in my plays which make them look completely stupid. . . they have to be fearless, almost like the rodeo clowns who have to go out and distract the bulls - those are the type of fools my work needs and I think the theater needs more of them. . . death defying fools. I put actors through such outrageous situations - in Bootycandy in particular - that all Ego has to be left at the door and just a willingness to Jump Over a Cliff is required. I promise my actors that I'll have them by the hand and never let them fall on their face - that the play and the production will support them - but I require they not be afraid to Jump. . . and not fear falling on their face. And only Fools have that. . . No Fear.
WB: Michael Jackson shows up several times throughout the play, especially in the scenes with Sutter. What is his importance to you?
RO: He was and will forever be my idol. I wept when he died, and he has been an icon throughout my life. When I was a little boy I would dance like him and I still remember my grandmother asking me to "dance like Michael Jackson do." I won contests dancing like MJ - in fact I was voted Best Dancer by my high school senior class. And to a little gay boy who felt out of place and yet deeply loved by those around him growing up, there is no better example to me than Michael Jackson to have been the person I identified with throughout my life. And when he danced. . . he made me Choke. . . he made the world Choke.
WB: You've commented that people rarely respond to your plays with a shrug, that they usually love them or hate them.
RO: I think it’s the nature of my "style." You either like playing with yourself in public or you don't. And those of us that get off on it . . . tend to gravitate towards each other, and everyone else is just repulsed that such behavior is not left behind closed doors. At various moments in Bootycandy various folks will become HIGHLY offended and the next second you see those same people busting a gut laughing... I believe in low and high comedy playing the same stage at the same time and that’s not what people are used to. But I do have to say that if you sit down in a show called BOOTYCANDY and don't know it’s going be a bit out of control then it’s your own damn fault. I mean ... really, come on... Bootycandy!!!!