Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
We know they harbor resentments among themselves, too, as when one Adlean, who is hooked on pain medication, tears into Lillie Anne, who is spearheading the intervention by stating "You think you're so smart just cause you're the only one in the family with a GED." If O'Hara had not been so adept at drawing out the humor, triggering constant laughs, from these people and their dilemma, it would be tempting to coil back in disgust. Instead, we see them as deeply flawed but thoroughly human. We know they can never succeed, yet we genuinely hope that against all the odds they will.
O'Hara uses a gimmick, clever all right, of alternating scenes between white actors and black actors playing the same parts, each character having more or less the same traits, only one is dark skinned, the other pale skinned. Even so, the narrative moves in a straight line and we are on board. Then, just before the stage goes dark, comes a bombshell that leaves us to puzzle things out during intermission, eager to find out what really was going on for the past hour. The second act whips us in a totally different spin on everything we saw in the first, raising a raft of new questions as it also raises gales of laughter from the audience. To tell what happens would be unforgivable, but I would urge theatergoers to just ride with it and let it take you to its destination.
Thomas W. Jones II directs Barbecue with a masterful touch, maintaining continuity when the scenes transition between the black and white casts in act one. Working with a wonderful ensemble of actors, he establishes the sense of familiarity and blood-line loyalty among the brood in spite of their constant squabbling, petty peeves, and personal demons. Jones then moves boldly into the change of venue that makes act two such a bolt, a riddle, and ultimately, a revelation. His go-for-broke treatment of the play is exactly right, and the result is a thoroughly satisfying work of theater that continues to play out in the mind for days after.
As for that cast, every one is a gem. The two actresses who play Barbara have the central roles, and Jevetta Steele and Sandra Struthers succeed with high honors. In their own ways, both convey fierce energy and determination to set their eyes on a prize and snatch it. Steele's strength as a celebrated power-house vocalist serves her well in this part, while Struthers draws on a manic energy untapped in recent work as genteel characters in Glensheen and The Critic/Real Inspector Hound. Sue Scott (known largely as part of Garrison Keeler's "Prairie Home Companion" ensemble) and Aimee K. Bryant make a terrific pair of Lillie Annes, determined to push and pull their dysfunctional siblings into foisting the intervention on even more dysfunctional Barbara.
Regina Marie Williams and Bonni Allen play the two Maries, a character whose sexuality is always in the "on" position, but who is chained down by her own addiction. In this case Williams, the consummate actress who appears capable of assuming any identity, shines, but Allen is just fine in the part as well. Director Thomas W. Jones II and Stephen Yoakam each play the only brother among the siblings, James T (the T is never explained, a touch that I love, as one of those family laws so long and deeply imbedded that no one ever thinks to mention it). Yoakam's James T is a bit more flamboyant and more submerged in his alcoholism than is Jones', but again, both handily get the job done. As pill-addled Adlean, both Lolly Foy and Dana Lee Thompson capture her air of denialthe pills are for the cancer, after allwhile demonstrating the harsh effects of her addiction.
Trevor Bowen, who last month received the 2016 Emergent Artist Ivey Award, designed attire for the first act barbecue that captures the characters' Kmart shopper personas, while in act two he creates a totally different wardrobe for this crew, with eye-popping results. Joseph Stanley's set, which for most of the play is a picnic shelter with a city park, serves the story well, while Karin Olson's lighting and Montana Johnson's sound design are critical to the narrative leap as the play draws to an end.
Barbecue gives its audience a great ride, a roller coaster with unexpected drops, calling for a measure of faith that the rails will lead back to ground, and that our cars won't fly off the track. Mixed Blood has done an excellent job of drawing together a strong and insightful director, terrific cast, and top-notch design team, making this ride thrilling in the way it fractures narrative, playful in its no-holds-barred humor, and grounded in tough questions about values and truth.
Barbecue continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through October 16, 2016. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $25 for tickets purchased in advance. Access Passes guarantee complimentary seating and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities, and their companions. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door 30 minutes prior to performances. For advance tickets and Access Pass information call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Writer: Robert O'Hara; Directed by: Thomas W. Jones II, Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Montana Johnson; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Alex Olsen; Stage Manager: Raúl Ramos
Cast: Bonni Allen (Marie), Aimee K. Bryant (Lillie Anne), Lolly Foy (Adlean), Thomas W. Jones II (James T.), Sue Scott (Lillie Anne), Jevetta Steele (Barbara), Sandra Struthers (Barbara), Dana Lee Thompson (Adlean), Regina Marie Williams (Marie), Stephen Yoakam (James T.).