Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Celebration Theatre at the Lex
Through December 20
Robert O’Hara’s Lambda Award-winning comedy is the first production by Celebration Theatre in its new home. It’s largely a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical tale satirizing the trials and tribulations of growing up Black.
We first meet Sutter (Anton Peeples) the protagonist as a precocious pre-school kid with a passion for Michael Jackson. He’s confused by words like “blow-job” which aren’t in the dictionary. And he doesn’t understand why his mother (Travina Springer) calls his penis “bootycandy.” He doesn’t know what it means, but he likes the sound of it.
Later, at age 16, over McDonald’s Happy Meals with his mother (now played by Julanne Chidi Hill), his step-father (Michael A. Shepperd), and his little sister (Springer), he unwisely tells the family about the man who followed him home from the library.
This sets off alarm bells for his mother, who enquires “How you ever gonna get a woman if you don’t do anything but read books and listen to musicals?” And step-dad prescribes baseball and kung-fu to develop his masculinity. They don’t realize that particular horse has already left the stable.
Later we see Sutter in a passionately charged relationship with his sexually ambivalent brother-in-law Roy (Cooper Daniels), who insists that he’s straight even though he likes to fuck around. And finally we see him in a tender encounter with his ancient grandmother (Shepperd) who’s in a nursing home.
In addition to the autobiographical scenes, there are a number of additional episodes that are only tangentially related: a phone conversation between a dizzy woman (Springer) who wants to name her baby daughter “Genitalia,” and her disapproving sister (Hill).
Later we encounter Genitalia herself (Hill) in a de-commitment ceremony with her lesbian lover Intifada (Springer). In a fantasy sequence, a flamboyant black minister (Shepperd) responds to a homophobic letter from his parishioners with some shocking and hilarious revelations of his own.
And in the strangest episode of all, a neurotic young man (Peeples) with a sadistic bent torments and seduces a mentally unstable man (a compelling performance by Daniels), reducing him to despair.
O’Hara’s script is hip, quirky, funny and sometimes deliberately disturbing. The disparate episodes never quite come together to make a satisfying whole, but they’re always apt and interesting in themselves.
Director Michael Matthews provides a slick, sharp stylized production. Peeples navigates the non-linear script with skill and makes Sutter a sympathetic figure. Shepperd gives us eloquent, larger-than-life portraits both of the outrageous preacher and Sutter’s earthy, foul-mouthed but loving grandmother.
Daniels shines in multiple roles: as the sexually confused Roy, as a fey new-age minister, as a man desperately talking down a would-be mugger, and as the sadist’s semi-psychotic victim. And he handles with gutsy aplomb the frank nudity the role requires. The women have rather less to do, but they do it with panache.
Stephen Joshua Thompson’s industrial-flavored set is handsomely minimal, and Allison Dillard’s costumes are clever and right.
Celebration Theatre at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Avenue. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 20. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com.