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“Mankind” Playwright Robert O’Hara Talks the Challenges of Creating Timely Satire

“If men could get pregnant” has long been a set-up for bumper sticker one-liners (and Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies). But now it’s the premise for a politically serious satire: Robert O’Hara’s Mankind, running through January 28 at Playwrights Horizons. Mankind depicts a sci-fi future where women are extinct and men can bear children — in fact, men must bear children, because in this slick, authoritarian society, abortion is punishable as homicide. O’Hara’s protagonists, Jason and Mark, learn this the hard way when they try to end an unwanted pregnancy and end up in prison for attempted murder. Then, through a series of reversals too fascinating to reveal, their misfortune turns to fame and celebrity, and the pair find themselves adored as the high priests of a new religion titled “feminism” (boasting zero female worshippers, of course, since all women are long dead).

Got all that? It’s a heady concoction, and O’Hara answered the Voice’s questions in advance of his provocative play’s opening earlier this month.

Where did the idea for Mankind come from?

Robert O’Hara: The original idea was from a ten-minute play commissioned by Partial Comfort Productions. I wrote this scene — which is now the first scene of Mankind — about two men saying all the wrong things surrounding one of them telling the other, “I’m pregnant.” Several years later I got commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, and I was like, I’ve been thinking about that play and about making it a fuller conversation.

And then the world began to explode. We elected Trump, and there were the revelations of the sexual-harassment conversation. The world was getting more surreal and more like a satire. It was clear that we were speaking to the moment. I wanted to be very careful in the context we were giving it: I didn’t want it being presented as a joke, or a feminist play, because of course it isn’t; it has no women. It certainly has feminist themes.

Why couldn’t it be a feminist play, even though it doesn’t have women characters?

I didn’t set out to write a feminist play; I set out to write a satire on patriarchy. There well may be people who think of it as a feminist play — but I started it as a play about men dealing with pregnancy, and it ended up in all these different worlds: with religion, with feminism.

Watching that first scene where the men talk about their unwanted pregnancy, it was hard to keep from thinking of that bumper sticker saying, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be free, safe, and legal.” But your play depicts a world where the opposite is true.

Yeah. Because men are really kind of stupid when it comes to stuff like that. We still have these old-ass laws. I think the statement that if men could get pregnant then abortion would be legalized assumes that men would get it! We still have these draconian ideas about religion, that this book says this, that, and the other thing. What if I don’t believe in that fucking book?

Can you talk a little about how women became extinct in the world of your play?

I left it vague. But I think that if you make abortion illegal, and then women have to think about, “If I get pregnant, and if I don’t want this child, I may have to go to jail or I may be put on trial,” the stress on the body itself, and the act of living your life in a stressful way, could affect your health. Mind you, the play is set one hundred years after that happened. I felt that society has made it more and more and more difficult for women to exist fully in the world.

What kinds of responses have you gotten? Especially to the moment of audience participation, where men in the audience are supposed to stand up and identify themselves?

Responses have been right on the mark. It’s a very divisive conversation whenever you are dealing with abortion and religion and patriarchy, so I would have hated to have written a play in which everyone had the same reaction to these things.

I have noticed that the more diverse the audience, the more excited and vocal they are. I’m writing a satire. You could just have a play about men getting pregnant — hahaha — but that wasn’t interesting to me. I wanted to know what patriarchy says about men’s bodies when they don’t have women to mistreat. We had to calibrate the participation over the previews. Most of the men participate; even if you don’t participate, you are participating.

You could have written a tragedy on the same themes. Why satire?

Satire allows me to invite the audience in, in a different way than tragedy. Satire allows you to relax in a different way. I wanted to allow the audience in, and then indict them into: Why are you laughing? Why is it funny to hear someone say “ah-women” instead of “amen”? Why is it funny to hear the tenets of feminism?

Yeah, the idea of people worshipping the thing they have killed — killing women and then becoming “feminists” — was funny, but not in a funny way.

Not only have you killed them, you have removed the entire existence of women.

Speaking of religion, we spend much of the play staring at basically a giant idol, a golden sculpture of Mark and Jason’s baby. Where did the image come from?

The script calls for the item to be there at that size. When you paint it gold, it heightens the surreality of it; it also gives a massive, almost spiritual quality. Some religions see a huge Buddha sitting in their services, or a huge Christ figure — there are these symbols that are larger than life, that is where it came from. One character says, about religion, “They need a body and they need it to be dead.”

Could you say something about where your play lands on biological versus socially constructed ideas about gender?

Someone asked me: “Where is the trans in this world; where are the other gender realities?” They’re not there because they’re not part of the story I’m telling. In satire, you have to remove certain things so that you can get further along the aisle you are going down. I go and see theater all the time where I’m not there. We have no problem with seventeen white people being onstage in a world that’s supposed to be looking like us.

I call it a violent act to create a play where women do not exist, but it’s an act that I did deliberately to make a point — not just, “I’m going to write a play and put no women in it.” And I’ve seen lots of those plays.

It seems quite clear why there aren’t women or trans characters. More so, the play seems to present an interesting conundrum about gender. Men’s bodies have evolved in this way, they have gained the ability to bear children, but it’s clearly a world of men.

Yes. I am playing with this idea of gender by making it one idea at the beginning of the play, and as the story opens up, more diversity comes into the world of gender. I do think it is socially constructed. One can change and adapt themselves and also claim the gender that they want to have. I do think the possibility of more genders is in the play at the end.

Mankind
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200
playwrightshorizons.org
Through January 28

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Bootycandy Is Bootylicious

There are the timid plays you
watch impatiently
, wishing the writer had the guts to stage the more outrageous figments of his imagination. And then there are compulsively
enjoyable plays like Bootycandy, Robert O’Hara’s exploration of race, queerness, and the limits of drama, in which the
playwright does precisely that.

Now at Playwrights Horizons in a crisp production under O’Hara’s direction,
Bootycandy loosely follows the tale of Sutter (Phillip James Brannon), a gay African American man who grew up in the 1970s (think bell-bottoms, polyester, and the Jackson 5). Sutter explores sexuality, family, and becoming a writer in a theater world that still asks African American and queer artists to fulfill narrowly prescribed roles.

O’Hara has structured his play associatively, with many scenes only half-
connected to Sutter. There’s a “non-
commitment” ceremony between two exes on a Caribbean beach; a preacher who comes out to his congregation, trading clerical robes for sequins and shiny red heels; and a delightful four-way phone call about the pros and cons of naming one’s baby Genitalia. These satirical detours broaden the play’s critique and showcase the wonderful ensemble.

There are a few moments — like an
onstage “playwrights conference” — when Bootycandy feels so self-reflexive that it veers into inside-joke territory. But the
missteps are outweighed by the pleasures of sharp writing, serious thought, and beaucoup comic relief. Miriam Felton-Dansky

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Nine Notable NYC Theater Events This Summer

Summerworks 2014


Performances begin May 30

Bold new plays need a place to chill in our warming climate, and Clubbed Thumb unfailingly provides one with its annual Summerworks series. The programmers generally prefer idiosyncratic young voices to established ones, and this season features three freshly inked scripts from adventurous dramatists: 41-DERFUL, written and directed by Jenny Schwartz, I’m Pretty Fucked Up by Ariel Stess, and 16 Words Or Less by Peggy Stafford. The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, clubbedthumb.org

Macbeth


Performances begin May 31

Tired of the scheming Thane of Cawdor and the endless parade of screen celebs who come to play him in New York? Well, there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: This time none other than Kenneth Branagh lionizes the title role for his New York stage debut, and co-directs with Rob Ashford. This production crosses the Atlantic from the UK’s Manchester International Festival to the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall, where big battle scenes will unfurl across a traverse stage—bloody and spooky like Shakespeare wanted it to be. Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, armoryonpark.org

Holler If Ya Hear Me


Performances begin June 2

2Pac: The Musical? Holler If Ya Hear Me isn’t a bio-drama, but a Broadway homage “inspired by” the music and lyrics of late great hip-hopper Tupac Shakur. It’s a sure bet that inner city lives, loves, and struggles will find poetic justice on the Great White Way. The producers are installing stadium-style seating in the house, and the show’s team includes director Kenny Leon (The Mountaintop) and choreographer Wayne Cilento (Wicked). Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, palacetheatreonbroadway.com

Much Ado About Nothing


Performances begin June 3

Don’t you hate when your friends trick you into falling wildly in love in the middle of summer? Sometimes it’s fun to watch it happen to other people, though, in this case Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in the middle of Sicily (okay, Central Park). Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater star in Jack O’Brien’s production for Shakespeare in the Park. Next up in the park’s free summer Bard works: Daniel Sullivan’s staging of King Lear, with John Lithgow in the title role. Delacorte Theater in Central Park, publictheater.org

Comic Book Theater Festival


Performances begin June 3

City-saving superheroes, ninja turtles, and a werewolf who moonlights as President of the United States—all will leap in a single bound off the color page and onto the Brooklyn stage. This is the second iteration of the Brick’s incubator festival, which presents experiments in live performance sourced in comics and graphic novels. Just as seriously fun is Game Play, the Brick’s series of innovative events exploring video gaming and theater, which starts July 11. You never know what’ll happen, so plug in your mental console and press go. The Brick, 579 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, bricktheater.com

The Old Woman


Performances begin June 22

Maybe you’ve heard of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, who star in this dark mindbender about a couple and their unwanted visitor. The director — Robert Wilson — might also ring a bell for lovers of exquisitely imagistic theater spectacles. But the real reason to catch this absurdity-tinged show is to encounter the least well-known name: The project is adapted from the recently rediscovered oeuvre of Danill Kharms, an avant-garde Soviet poet whose visions promise to confound and ravish. BAM Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org

Lincoln Center Festival


Performances begin July 7

What’s new and happening in the classical world? This season’s stalwart Lincoln Center Festival has a number of unmissables, starting with Japan’s revered Heisei Nakamura-za company (founded in the 17th century), which arrives with a tale of a villainous samurai. In August, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert will add to the sidewalks’ sizzle as power-plotting siblings in Genet’s head-spinning drama The Maids. Various locations, lincolncenterfestival.org

Mount Tremper Arts
Summer Festival 2014



Performances begin July 25

How often have we fled the concrete jungle for greenery and lakes, only to find ourselves missing the pleasures of town, such as cutting-edge theater? That problem is nicely solved at Mount Tremper Arts in the Catskills, about a two-hour drive from the city. This summer’s season offers a collaboration by playwright Lisa D’Amour (Detroit) and The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf; a world premiere by 600 Highwaymen; and Cynthia Hopkins’s A Living Documentary. 647 South Plank Road in Mount Tremper, NY, mounttremperarts.org

Bootycandy


Performances begin August 22

Robert O’Hara’s satirical play Bootycandy assembles a handful of short sketches about growing up gay and black into a fresh panorama of American life. O’Hara’s previous works—starting with Insurrection: Holding History—have proven engaging, funny, and provocative. Playwrights Horizons’ production, directed by the author, will call us back to summer school for a cultural sex-ed survey with disorientating dimensions and depths. Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, playwrightshorizons.org

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GET HAPPY

Actor-playwright-director Colman Domingo certainly has no problem staying busy. A part of the Obie-winning ensemble of Passing Strange and a Tony nominee for his role in The Scottsboro Boys, he will next be on the big screen in Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln and Lee Daniels’s The Butler. But before that, you can catch him live on stage in his new play, Wild With Happy. The story concerns an actor who wants to honor his deceased mother by scattering her ashes in the place she loved the best. Trouble is, he’s not sure where that is. Obie winner Robert O’Hara directs this world premiere at the Public Theater, which is also throwing a block party and open house today from noon to 5 to celebrate the rededication of their space.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 13. Continues through Nov. 11, 2012

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Ragtime and The Brother/Sister Plays Spin Black American History into Folk Tales

Drawn from E.L. Doctorow’s popular novel, the 1998 musical Ragtime, now getting its first New York revival (Neil Simon Theatre), deals with blacks confronting white America. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, being given in repertory at the Public Theater, deals wholly with black Americans. Both works are fables of life in modern industrial America, cast in folk-tale terms.

Both are steeped in music; both employ story-theater-style narration, building a theatrical tension between storytelling and dialogue. Both, too, identify their characters as type figures. McCraney’s are perceived as avatars of the African gods whose names they bear: Ogun, Shango, Elegba. Ragtime‘s people get their names from their familial roles (Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother) or as icons in memory’s historical waxworks (Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington). Even Ragtime‘s two most individualized characters, the (fictional) great ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker and his unhappy lover, Sarah, turn out to have literary prototypes: They were borrowed by Doctorow from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella, Michael Kohlhaas, in which the embittered hero turns rebel, and his neglected wife dies, under circumstances paralleling those in Ragtime.

Obviously, the mixture of elements in such works, while never quite coalescing, gives them an exceptional density. In their differing ways, both Ragtime and The Brother/Sister Plays are rich, flavorsome experiences. Even when the story runs thin, as in the long first part of McCraney’s work, or when its meanings seem to turn flat and oversimplified, as happens late in Ragtime, you never feel like you’ve been shortchanged: Something else is always being evoked, supplying the aesthetic equivalent of moral support.

Ragtime, which hurtles its black characters into the wide and dangerously prejudiced world of the larger society, is a chunk of “our” history, a staged chapter of the allegorical narrative that tells how America became what it is. McCraney’s trilogy, which prefers delving into the characters’ psychology, scarcely touching the wider world at all, is a set of chapters in the ongoing lives of a black community on the Louisiana bayou. Ragtime‘s point, if it can be reduced to one, is how contact with other communities alters our sense of our own: “We can never go back to before.” McCraney’s, conversely, seems to be the Jungian notion that community is destiny: The collective unconscious is always at work, making the same types recur in each generation.

Both points are true, partially. The challenge, with both works, is to get us past the dry patches where the truth runs out into the vibrant places where it thrives. Both do this, on the whole, rather well. Ragtime‘s shortcomings have been much debated since its disappointing initial run. What’s less well remembered, which Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s new production successfully arouses, is the sense it gives of being in that musical heaven where the artists do everything right. About half the Ahrens-Flaherty score comes into this category. Dodge’s production—barer, starker, and smaller than Frank Galati’s original—enhances the work’s tautness by linking its criss-crossed stories more sharply, and pushing for heightened tensions in Terrence McNally’s book, which, as a result, seems less mild-mannered than it did, less of a problem-solving task in adaptation and more of a drama.

That approach has dangers attached. Push, and you sometimes get coarser results; tighten, and you put extra pressure on the weak links. The 1998 production’s four leads were unsurpassable. Dodge’s four, Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse), Christiane Noll (Mother), Robert Petkoff (Tateh), and Stephanie Umoh (Sarah), make only a handsome stab at equaling them, with Darrington coming closest. On the plus side, Dodge offers a more convincing Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), and scores a memorable interpretive triumph with Bobby Steggert’s performance as Younger Brother. But pushing badly coarsens some of the secondary performances, while the tautening shows up the authors’ perfunctory treatment of Father, despite Ron Bohmer’s efforts to make more of him. Like the straight lines of Dodge’s lucid but slightly rigid staging, the production’s moral lines of good and bad are sometimes too simplistically drawn.

Nothing is so simple in McCraney’s works, where ancient gods and last night’s dreams keep drifting into and out of the action, and the characters’ dialogue tracks, with hairbreadth precision, into and out of self-narration. The constant repetition of data that results can get maddening, but it can also be used for subtle effects. Both Tina Landau, staging Part 1, and Robert O’Hara, directing the double bill of Parts 2 and 3, use it so: One remarkable aspect of the event is its unity of style. Only Landau’s imagistic use of background figures, and the intentionally harsher sound effects in O’Hara’s double bill, differentiate the two stagings. And, although much in both is shoutingly overplayed, whenever the story turns serious, the acting turns transcendent. Marc Damon Johnson, evolving from the stammering adolescent of Part 1 to the weary, grieving oldster of Part 3, acquires breathtaking stature.

Part 1 suffers from bait-and-switch dramaturgy: Oya (Kianne Muschett) is a youthful track star who rejects an athletic scholarship to “State” in order to stay with her dying mother (Heather Alicia Simms). After the latter’s death, nothing is said about any desire on Oya’s part to make a life for herself; the story narrows to a matter of which of two men she loves, and then to her desperation, climaxing in a desperate act, when she finds herself unable to have a baby. As in Lorca’s Yerma, which McCraney’s play sometimes resembles, the obsession seems to leave the central character behind.

The shorter Parts 2 and 3, building on figures established in Part 1, actually contain greater substance, and McCraney’s writing feels far more assured. A fierce conflict between brothers in one finds unexpected closure through the sexual dilemmas of an unrelated young man in the other. Sensibly, McCraney offers no simple answers; he lays out the complex situation fully and leaves the audience to sort through it.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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Metrotextuals

In his program note, director–co-writer–chief instigator Robert O’Hara claims that Partial Comfort Productions’ Play “was conceived as an exercise in the Craft of Playwriting.” Unfortunately, the piece never surpasses mere exercise.

Play is a playwright’s version of the game telephone: O’Hara took a short scene and passed it on—via e-mail—to five other playwrights in succession (Chay Yew, Kia Corthron, Edwin Sanchez, Keith Josef Adkins, and Tracey Scott Wilson). They were instructed to write another scene using at least one character from the previous section, adding, if necessary, only one new person. They were also told to “move the story forward in an adventurous manner.” (You’d think the last rule would be kind of obvious.)

The results are a mess. According to O’Hara, the piece is supposed to follow the tangled web of various overlapping “metrosexual relationships” (a term that should be banned from the English language). However, the arbitrary connections and inconsistencies of character, tone, and theme only become more and more trying as time goes on. Play is a lot of work for the audience.

There are a couple of high points: Sanchez’s contribution ties up the loose ends in a humorously imaginative way. Unfortunately, this denouement comes halfway through the show instead of at the end. And Adkins smartly ignores Yew and Corthron’s previous poetical claptrap to create witty—though pretty much unrelated—dialogue (nicely performed by Lionel Gentle and Melvina Jones).

Ultimately, the fault lies with O’Hara. A polyphonic investigation like this is a good idea, but like any experiment in democracy, it requires reasonably strong leadership. O’Hara’s lackluster directing and his unwillingness—or inability—to sculpt these disparate works into a cohesive whole demonstrate that he’s simply not the man for the job.

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Notes From Underwhelmed

“What would someone say to me if they looked at my life from the outside?” Ronny asks her sister Jeannine early in Somewhere Someplace Else, Ann Marie Healy’s study of inarticulateness and longing. Ronny has come to visit Jeannine for a weekend in New York, but ends up staying for months as she tries to figure out what will make her happy. “It’s so easy to look at someone’s life from the outside and tell them what to do,” she says, but impossible to do so for oneself. Jeannine makes the same point later in a conversation with Ronny’s husband, Lance, who has flown in from Minneapolis to try to get his wife to come home to him.

As an audience, of course, we do see Ronny and Jeannine from the outside, but it’s hard to imagine what anyone might tell these pitiful characters to do to make their existence more bearable. “Get a life” is not likely to help; “Read a book” not likely to be heeded.

Mentally tongue-tied and incapable of describing their emotions without recourse to advertising jingles and pop songs, the sisters regularly burst into tears, as if frustrated that they have no access to their own inner lives. Jeannine (Laura Heisler), trying to become a free spirit in New York, has a meaningless job answering phones for a boss she refers to as a “fat cow cuntface”; Ronny (Mara Stephens), running from tedium, ends up having a brief affair with (and writing adolescent diary entries about) a guy she meets on the rooftop outside Jeannine’s window. The women coexist in Jeannine’s tiny studio apartment—a cleverly cramped box of a set (designed by David Korins) that revolves to foreground action in the narrow bed area, the bathroom, and the rooftop. While sitting practically on top of each other, the sisters remain painfully distant.

Tonally pitched somewhere between the dispassionate surveillance of Richard Maxwell’s work and the ironic sympathy of Maria Irene Fornes’s—but lacking either’s genius for scenic architecture and understated passion—Healy’s play feels empty. The excruciatingly mundane quality of the dialogue seems meant to comment on the ways the limitations of language circumscribe thought and feeling, but the work provokes too much condescension toward its characters to point to any questions beyond them. Directing for Clubbed Thumb, Annie Dorsen tries to create some productive tension by giving the performances a matte finish and making sure that wallowing is kept to a minimum. Still, she can’t create texture where the play hasn’t provided any.


Lack of texture is certainly not Robert O’Hara’s shortcoming in American Ma(u)l, mounted by Reverie Productions. His frantically ambitious play is also interested in how words can both limit and liberate, but rather than looking at two middle-class white women trying to find themselves in New York, he takes on black and white Americans trying to find—and sometimes lose—themselves in history.

Opening with slaves picking cotton on a plantation while Thomas Jefferson writes the Constitution, and ending back on the plantation in a dystopic future after the Fourteenth Amendment has been revoked, the play dashes across time and place in broad comic strokes. Even messier than O’Hara’s promising if unwieldy 1996 work, Insurrection: Holding History—in which a graduate student time-traveled with his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather to the days of the Nat Turner rebellion—American Ma(u)l draws from Shakespeare and sitcoms as it spins out a sharp satire of racial subjugation.

The African American Jeffersons live alongside the white Franklins, whose twin sons, Smith and Wesson, carry on with Juliet, the girl next door. When slavery is reinstated, Juliet’s parents make a trip to Washington to show Sally Hemmings the “true proof” that they have some “Jefferson white” in their blood, and thus are exempt from the new bondage. Juliet, meanwhile, is hoping Smith will purchase her so she won’t be sent South to an especially brutal enslavement. Smith’s parents, however, set out to burn a cross on their neighbors’ lawn and never stop spewing racist remarks. Various real and imagined characters intervene in the disjointed plot, among them a drag queen emceeing a 2 a.m. cable show and a black revolutionary professor in an electric chair who’s auctioned to the public.

O’Hara’s vision is wonderfully provocative, and he’s got an appealing sense of the grand, but American Ma(u)l is far from finished. O’Hara’s own direction of the play exaggerates its faults. The clown-show frenzy often drowns out the lines of action, and O’Hara doesn’t edit the gags that could only have seemed funny in rehearsal. (It’s bad enough that Juliet is characterized as little more than a hunted bitch—either for sex by the boys, or for labor by the slavery cops; the dildo revealed hanging off her lacy underwear when she’s discovered in flagrante with Smith is one of those cheap shots that should have been jettisoned.) O’Hara also fails to keep his energetic cast of 10 from playing perpetually over the top, losing much of his language—and much of his social critique—in shrill simplification.