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Booze-fueled antics and plot twists make 'Barbecue' a satisfying meal

Rich Ryan

Rich Ryan

Playwright Robert O’Hara aims to entertain and provoke, and he doesn’t mind upsetting some of the furniture if that’s what it takes. And it’s not just metaphorical furniture; an entire picnic set gets kicked around the Mixed Blood Theatre stage in Barbecue, a play that comes to Minneapolis after making a much-buzzed-about debut last year in New York.

Barbecue

Mixed Blood Theatre
$20; free two hours before show

The piece’s first act has a bold premise: Five adult siblings are played, in alternating scenes, by two sets of actors. One set is white, the other is black. The two fractious families share the same names, the same clothes, and the same situation. Four of the siblings are meeting in a park for what’s posing as a party, but is actually an intervention for their sister Barbara (first Sandra Struthers, then Jevetta Steele), who’s in the throes of crack addiction.

Given that at least three of the other four siblings have substance-abuse issues of their own, this could be a case of those-in-glass-houses, but this house came crashing down years ago, and the would-be interveners glory in heaping abuse on one another.

Adlean (Dana Lee Thompson and Lolly Foy) is such an assiduous smoker, she carries an entire carton of cigarettes around with her. James T. (Stephen Yoakam and Thomas W. Jones II, who also directs) swills beer as though every hour is a power hour, while Marie (Bonni Allen and Regina Marie Williams) swings a whiskey bottle like a bludgeon. That leaves Lillie Anne (Sue Scott and Aimee K. Bryant) as the one sibling who’s sober — and surly.

This family outing sounds like a slog, but Jones keeps things hopping by playing up the farcical side of O’Hara’s story: Lillie Anne tries to demonstrate which dance move will signal the showdown, while James T. tests the Taser he presumes he’s going to have to use on an unrepentant Barbara. The big themes don’t come out until the second act, when the two families finally meet and the reason for their uncanny similarities is revealed.

Jones embraces the play’s motley absurdity in a production that shambles noisily along and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. In everything from age to appearance to acting, neither set of siblings bears much family resemblance — but who cares? As long as Williams is strutting around with gleeful scorn, or Thompson is barking dry comebacks, we’re entertained.

The context provided by the second act is crucial, and Steele is magisterial as the master manipulator who pulls it all together. She’s insulted when the other Barbara refers to her as being black, because Steele’s character sees herself as having transcended race. It’s an ironic assertion, yes, but one that resonates with O’Hara’s suggestion that inside, we’re all fundamentally actors who try to play our assigned roles to our best advantage. If that takes a little liquid courage, so be it.

IF YOU GO:

Barbecue
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
612-338-6131; through October 16