A young hero’s adventures into adulthood remains the core story of many stage shows, but in the next several months Houston will see some wildly varied versions of that journey thanks to Obie award-winning director and playwright Robert O’Hara.
This month, O’Hara directs the Theatre Under the Stars production of the beloved classic The Wiz, giving it a new female-empowered vision. Then, in early 2019, Houston’s favorite avant garde theater company, Catastrophic, will produce a very different kind of hero’s journey in O’Hara’s controversial and outrageously funny play, Bootycandy.
During a recent interview with CultureMap, O’Hara discussed his work’s odyssey to Houston stages, and explained how The Wiz became a path in his own personal journey as an “iconic” part of his childhood. He played the scarecrow in high school and especially loved the film growing up. Though he doesn’t usually like to direct the same play several times, he makes an exception for this musical.
The wonderful world of Oz
“I have a special relationship to it. Whenever I hear those songs, I sit in wonder,” he explains, believing that the show has the power to still captivate us 45 years after its first creation.
“It surprises us with a young woman’s story of her imagination and her journey to love herself, find herself, and find home in herself, and in particular, with The Wiz, a young African-American woman’s story. We don’t have many musicals or plays that have as its protagonist a young African-American woman.”
As a director, O’Hara sees our familiarity with the music and Dorothy’s adventure as an opportunity to give audiences a new perspective on the show.
“When people already know the story, you can play around with it more,” he says. “I find the most interesting actors and let them do their job.”
Playing around in this production means highlighting and revising some particularities of the original plot of The Wizard of Oz and Wiz that most audiences probably don’t often ponder.
“I always thought the Wiz and Wizard of Oz were strange actually. It’s a girl who imagines hanging out with three men and then another man tells her to go kill a woman. That’s very interesting once you boil it down.”
Being a lioness
In this new TUTS production, that man to woman ratio won’t so overwhelm as both the Wiz and Lion will be played by women. O’Hara thinks the Lion (Allyson Kaye Daniel) will especially add a powerful dynamic to the way the characters interact on their trek through Oz.
“The relationship with the Lion has always been very special because, of course, the Lion needs courage. I think we all need courage in this day and age, but to see two women sing “Be a Lion” to each other is really profound. It moves everyone every time we work on it and every time we hear it, to find in 2018 these two iconic characters singing to each other these words of encouragement.”
He also describes the relationship between Wiz (Broadway veteran Marva Hicks) and Dorothy to have a “wondrous quality that ultimately helps her along her journey.”
As for the arguably the most important and cutest cast member, Tot Grady — yes, a male canine will play Toto —O’Hara say in rehearsals he seems relaxed and knows his cues, though when they move from one piano to a 21 piece orchestra, they might need to make some adjustments, but so far the dog has been a consummate professional.
While The Wiz might be the perfect fall show for the whole family, Catastrophic Theatre’s production of the sometimes stinging satire Bootycandy will decidedly be for adults only. It too chronicles a journey through childhood into adulthood but O’Hara’s original hero, Sutter, a young gay, black man goes through some very different challenges, and the playwright wants the audience to have a very definite reaction. In fact he wants people to (figuratively) choke on the play.
“My [original] work is not the type that goes down easily. Especially because it’s a comedy,” he explains, wanting the audience to have a kind of visceral reaction as they laugh. “I’m using humor to choke you. I want you to feel comfortable, but then I want you to think, to asphyxiate, and then I want you to breathe and go: oh that wasn’t that bad.”
He does warn: “If you walk into a play titled Bootycandy, you deserve what you get.”
"The fearlessness of Robert O'Hara's writing is both poignant and off-the-charts funny,” states Catastrophic associate director, Tamarie Cooper, explaining why the company wanted to produce the play this season. “Though Bootycandy focuses on homosexuality in black culture, the play tells a universal story about one person's journey towards self-acceptance.”
When I asked O’Hara if Sutter’s journey towards self-acceptance is anything like Dorothy’s, he said while the shows are very different at almost every level, he does see a few similarities.
“There is a journey and it is, I think, magical and very colorful. It’s as outrageous as a talking scarecrow, a talking tin man, a talking lion, meeting a woman, and going to kill a witch,” he describes, but admits there won’t be any witch-hunts, at least, in Bootycandy.
The Theatre Under the Stars production of The Wiz runs October 23-November 4 at the Hobby Center.