Illinois State University’s School of Theatre and Dance presents a virtual production of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue on April 22-24 at 7:30 p.m. via Zoom Webinar.  

Robert O’Hara is an American playwright and director whose newest work, Slave Play, recently earned a record-breaking 12 Tony nominations. O’Hara won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama for his play Bootycandy,which followed the life of a gay African American man in a series of comedic sketches. In college, O’Hara pursued a career path as a lawyer before realizing that he truly wanted to be involved in theatre. As an undergraduate, he started the Tufts Black Theatre Company where he wrote and directed, and then went on to receive an M.F.A. in directing at Columbia University. While at Columbia he was mentored by George C. Wolfe, author of The Colored Museum. 

Headshot of playwright Robert O'Hara used with permission
Robert O’Hara, playwright

Barbecue examines the disfunction in family functions. In this play, a public park becomes the site of an intervention. With varying degrees of preparedness, the O’Mallery siblings prepare to entreat their larger-than-life baby sister, Barbara, to cut her drug addiction out of her life and seek help in rehab, all under the smokescreen of a family barbecue. Along the way, the depths of their own addictions are revealed. None of them know, however, how complicated their story might become when Barbara ultimately takes control of the narrative. Chances are that right by the grill is not going to be the only hot seat of the day. 

O’Hara throws a curveball at the audience, complicating this messy family story even more. In the first scene, the siblings are played by a cast of white actors. But in the next scene, we see the same characters—down to their quirks and habits—played by Black actors. Oscillating between these parallel casts, the play asks whether the same story is seen differently depending on the actors’ race. 

The School of Theatre and Dance artists involved in Barbecue had the opportunity to talk with playwright O’Hara for an intimate Q&A over Zoom. Topics included the writing process, professionally workshopping plays, working as a director and playwright, as well as several questions searching for deeper meaning in the script of the play.   

JaMia Rockingham, who plays Adlean in the show, reflects on her experience meeting O’Hara. “He taught us a lot about playwriting, life, and his perspective on Barbecue and his mindset when writing the play. His advice to us was to not be afraid to put ourselves out there. Someone wants to hear our message; someone needs to hear our message. Never be scared to share your stories.” 

Headshot of Tyrone Phillips
Tyrone Phillips, director

Barbecue is directed by guest artist Tyrone Phillips. Phillips is the founding artistic director of Chicago’s Definition Theatre and performs and directs frequently in the Chicago area. Named one of Newcity’s 50 Cultural Players in 2020, Phillips graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has studied abroad at Shakespeare’s Globe. In explaining the reasons that Phillips was invited to direct in the season, School of Theatre and Dance Director, Ann Haugo, described Phillips as “one of the most exciting and successful young theatre artists in Chicago today, working across genres from Shakespeare to contemporary gritty realism and comedy, both as an actor and a director. One of the motivations to bring any guest artist to campus is to identify those artists who will make a positive impact on our current students’ work and futures.” 

Barbecue is a virtual performance hosted through Zoom Webinar and is free to attend, although preregistration is required. Registration information is available on the School of Theatre and Dance Production Page or at MyRedbirdLife. Productions during the 2020-2021 season have been made available at no cost due to the generosity of donors who regularly support the School of Theatre and Dance. Please consider making a gift to help support future programs.