Interview: Artistic Director Sean Elias and Director Brandon Rashad-Butts Discuss ‘Bootycandy,’ Playing June 9-18th at the Baltimore Theatre Project

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Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy opens on June 9, 2017, at Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre. This production, a Baltimore premiere and the official show of Baltimore Pride 2017, closes out the largest and most successful season in Iron Crow’s history. Bootycandy, a semi-autobiographical subversive comedy, tells the story of Sutter, who is on an outrageous odyssey through his childhood home, his church, dive bars, motel rooms, and even nursing homes. In the play, O’Hara weaves together scenes, sermons, sketches, and daring meta-theatrics to create a kaleidoscope that interconnects to portray growing up gay and black.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bootycandy director Brandon Rashad-Butts and Iron Crow Artistic Director Sean Elias about the play.

David Gerson: The 2016/17 season at Iron Crow has been built around the theme of dark play. How does Bootycandy fit in with that theme?

Iron Crow Artistic Director Sean Elias. Photo courtesy of Iron Crow.

Sean: There were only a few titles that I immediately knew upon first read would be a part of our season of dark playBootycandy was one of them. This sexy, subversive, dark comedy forces us to look at, through the guise and ease of humor, very dark narratives that live within the queer experience, specifically the queer black experience. It forces us to wrestle with the dark game play we engage in with ourselves, our families, our children, our lovers and our friends. It falls at the end of the season because it so brilliantly encapsulates the various forms of dark play we explored individually in other titles in the beginning of the season. Even in its very construction, the author is engaging in dark play with his audience, stating one should “choke” in viewing his work.  Carlos Murillo states in Dark Play, or Stories for Boys that dark play is “where one player knows the rules and the others do not.” O’Hara presents a set of rules in one scene and immediately in the next scene freely deconstructs them, as he weaves from realism to memory, surrealism to the present. I promise, once you think you’ve figured out the rules, they’ve already changed!

Brandon: Since I came across Robert O’Hara as a playwright via his piece Insurrection: Holding History, I knew I had to make some level of artistic connection with him.  To receive the opportunity to work on a play like Bootycandy can best be described as “once in a life time.” But what made the moment special to me, was the ability to look through the scope of Iron Crow’s seasonal arc of dark play. While this is a dark comedy, much of what we find humorous in the structure of the play is no laughing matter, such as forcing masculinity while dismissing femininity, homophobia, racial generalizations, and so on. For this production, I wanted to focus on the darkness of fear, insecurity and secrecy that follows those who grow up in America both black and queer, and let the laughter be colored by that exploration.

What can audiences expect at Bootycandy?

Sean: First and foremost audiences can expect a level of artistic quality equaling or surpassing the largest theatres in Baltimore, which has truly been at the center of our brand and efforts since our return in the fall of 2016. We have assembled our best team yet, ranging from brilliant local talent, to M.F.A. candidates from the Yale School of Drama, to artists from New York City. We’ve got a beautifully abstract set coupled with a gorgeous costume design in tandem with the largest amount of automated moving lights we’ve ever utilized for a production. Expect to be taken on an outrageous journey which New York Magazine called “insanely entertaining and completely engaging.”

Brandon: The audience can expect a subversive experience in the culture of the black/black queer communities. Whether they walk away with empathy, sympathy, or apathy, they will get a taste of what it means to exist in this world carrying these identities and experiences. One beautiful thing about the play is it enables us to create a narrative that feels like fragments of a larger story, allowing the audience to take a journey rather than just see a show.

Bootycandy has been named the official show of Baltimore Pride, 2017. Does the play speak to the issues we celebrate during Pride?

Sean: We’re so honored and grateful to be able to partner with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) in becoming the official show of Baltimore Pride! We’ll be raising money for the GLCCB at each performance to once again support others within our community. Bootycandy allows us to celebrate our individual stories, whether they be fragmented, whole, hilarious or devastating. It also shows us that we’re not alone in experiences that hold many unique socio-emotional obstacles. I think these are the foundational aspects of any pride celebration; the celebration and expression of our own unique selves, and the understanding that we as a community are not alone.

Brandon: The fact that this production is a Baltimore Pride event makes it even more exciting to bring it to the community. We’ve included a few elements to make specific ties to Baltimore, choices that speak to the swag and style of the city. With the production, there are several moments where the theme of pride is represented, geographically, demographically, and emotionally, and we’ve tackled them head on. Consistent with my artistic mission to work with an inclusive team, we have assembled a group of artists from several gender, racial, and sexual identities. Pride is the number one place where you can find such a collage of humans and we’re thrilled to be a part of that. For these reasons, I think Bootycandy is ideally suited to celebrate Pride and what it means.

Brandon, can you tell us a little about the company and the process?

Brandon: Working on Bootycandy has been one of the most meaningful processes I’ve been blessed to be a part of. The ensemble connected with the piece in ways that took the idea of dark play towards a place of raw truth. The production works because the company worked with each other in a spirit of strength, openness and trust.

With films like Moonlight and Pariah, stories about being black and gay are getting mainstream attention. How does Bootycandy contribute to those narratives?

Sean: I think anything that brings visibility to the narrative of “the other” is a step forward in our collective understanding of us as a society. We’ve actually dedicated our entire next season, titled the “17/18 Season of Identity,” to exploring this very concept. Bootycandy absolutely contributes to this narrative but in an unabashedly theatrical and unique way. Bootycandy is similar to the films you mention in that it brings visibility of the once seemingly invisible, and specifically in bringing visibility to the experience of being both gay and black, but does so in a completely different and theatrical form. Remember too, while this play is just now reaching Baltimore, it debuted well before Moonlight and Pariah. The screen and the stage are also two very different mediums and what’s possible in the theatre is often times not on screen. For me, Bootycandy is a necessary addition to the queer cannon, and an absolutely meritorious piece of work, shining light on who we are and what we are in the face of where we are.

Brandon: For me, a large similarity between plays like Bootycandy and movies like Moonlight and Pariah and how they blew up the way they did was due to writing that showed lack of interest in being part of the mainstream narrative. The goal was to give you visceral, honest storytelling. I think that black and black queer artists will continue to take charge of their narratives, as we have for years. The difference is that now the desire to connect with and support those who have the pride to say “this is for us, by us,” which can walk oddly close to the original fight to suppress it, is increasing. That helped bring about the original success of Bootycandy, the films you mention, and other works of art from similar themes. So, it’s a very layered connection but in the end, artists are supposed to reflect the times. And that’s what Bootycandy does in its own unique and theatrical way.

Bootcandy, the official show of Baltimore Pride, plays June 9 to 18, 2017, at the Baltimore Theatre Project– 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the box office or online.

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