Cleveland Public Theatre Stages Regional Premiere of Robert O’Hara’s Tangy Comedy ‘Barbecue’

Robert O’Hara’s brand-new production tackles drug addiction and race.

Thu 2/16-Sat 3/11

Human nature means we’re all susceptible to addiction, no matter gender, race or ethnicity. For decades, parents and grandparents whispered about that alky uncle or black sheep cousin who disgraced the family at holidays, while hypocritically pointing fingers at minorities as being predisposed to the bottle, pills or needle.

However, a sea change took place over the past decade regarding the societal issue. For proof, look no further than the number of outer-ring suburbs with top-scoring schools hosting drug seminars to alert parents about the mainly heroin epidemic that’s sweeping the area.

With this in mind, perhaps no other play speaks to the now more than Robert O’Hara’s brand-new production Barbecue. Cleveland Public Theatre is staging the regional premiere of the dark comedy February 16 through March 11 in historic Gordon Square Theatre.

Directing the play is Cleveland Public Theatre’s associate artistic director Beth Wood, who previously helmed a 2012 production of O’Hara’s Antebellum. CoolCleveland talked to the veteran director about this sizzling play.

First of all, tell us why you’re excited about Cleveland Public Theatre’s regional premiere of Barbecue.

I’m a huge fan of Robert O’Hara. I love all of his work, but particularly with Barbecue. It’s such a unique take on a social conversation about addiction and family relationships. It’s about how two very different families can have the same experience. Just the way Robert does that. I don’t want to give too much away because there’s a lot of surprises in the play, but the way he reveals this conversation is really unique in form and it’s also intensely funny. So often when we talk about addiction, it’s a really heavy topic and it should be. But the way it’s discussed in this play is really, really funny and not in a disrespectful or light way. It’s in a really human way. Just like how we as a family or as a society kind of encounter the challenges of our loved ones.

Can you compare it to anything else seen in pop culture?

Something I often think about with this play is Showtime’s Shameless. We have this incredible dysfunctional family that has experienced so many different challenges with addiction and sometimes we find ourselves laughing out loud at William H. Macy as he’s exemplifying this horrible addictive behavior, but we still laugh. There’s something about that quality of laughing at tragedy that this play is kind of similar to. It kind of plays in that same world as Shameless.

What’s unique about O’Hara’s approach is it tackles addiction through a race lens.

There are four scenes: The white family tells the story in the first scene and third scene, and the black family tells the story in the second and fourth scene. What makes it so compelling is that the language doesn’t change, but the interpretation of these different human beings is extraordinarily different between each family. For me, what that kind of highlights is no matter what our upbringing might be or what culture we call home, we all have shared experiences. It also highlights how we as a society have a tendency to look at issues of addiction and how until recently with the heroin epidemic, drug addictions specifically, were really portrayed by the media as a black problem. I think the heroin epidemic has changed that narrative in some respect. It’s really looking at how it makes us kind of reflect in on how we see addiction and how there’s not a difference between cultures. It’s a shared experience of the society.

After being, if you will, barbecued by this dark comedy, what do you hope people talk about long after they’ve left the Cleveland Public Theatre production?

We should be walking away feeling like we do have this shared story and that we have this obsession with watching these shows like Intervention, where we watch this family do an intervention on this addict. And we watch that for entertainment. Isn’t that disturbing a little?

Finally, how does Barbecue epitomize the spirit of Cleveland Public Theatre?

Cleveland Public Theatre is really committed to telling the stories that we believe our community has a stake in or needs to hear. By that I mean our whole community — the neighbors that surround us, and maybe their neighbors on the other side of town. I think especially in our current world, it’s imperative that we ask hard questions of ourselves and of each other. Cleveland Public Theatre is really committed to that mission of using art to make us look inward and thereby expanding our empathetic muscle, our human nature of empathizing with someone else, seeing someone else’s point of view. That’s what the arts can do.


[Written by John Benson]

[Photo by Steve Wagner]

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