Bootycandy, showing at the Gate Theatre, is a riotous and subversive exploration of growing up black and gay in America.

“It should not melt in yo’ mouth”

And Bootycandy, at the Gate Theatre, London, certainly does not. Just when it seems the flavour of this play will settle into something recognisable and palatable, then some new wig, or trapdoor, or officiant in a rubber suit and gimp mask starts a non-commitment ceremony, and we choke and reconsider what we’ve swallowed so far.

The Gate Theatre describes Bootycandy as ‘a semi-autobiographical, kaleidoscopic, Black queer fever dream of connected vignettes’, which is broadly correct except ‘vignettes’ is too tame for how the play comes at you. ‘Flashbangs’ or ‘crazed algorithm throwing up wild stuff on your FYP’ is closer to what Bootycandy is really like in the flesh.

Bootycandy is Sutter’s story of growing up black and gay in a confusing and unkind world. His disjointed and sometimes hysterical, surreal memories surface in a stream of noisy, subversive scenes, interrupted by unconnected but equally surreal, comic scenes and disorienting meta-theatrical side steps.

This is the UK premiere of Robert O’Hara’s 2011 play, directed by Gate Theatre Associate Artist Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu. It’s an excellent match of audacity and virtuosity: the writing and direction both seem unhinged and unrestrained but are actually meticulously managed.

Bootycandy could only feel as disorderly as it does with very clever, careful co-ordination. The action leaps from mad phonecalls about a child called Genitalia to a disastrous writing workshop, to some lengthy outrageous preaching. Just as these freakish scenes threaten to tip over into complete anarchy, the twisted logic of Sutter’s inner world emerges, and we are invited into his recollections of his secret lover, his unsupportive family and the moment he chose violent revenge. Order is skilfully, abruptly restored and Fynn-Aiduenu somehow re-aligns the energy whipped up in the more outrageous moments to something still and reflective, at times even touching and tender.

It is testimony to the whole creative team that they can thrash the fourth wall so thoroughly, while also maintaining it enough to re-focus on Sutter and his attempts to understand who he is, and what he’s done, and what has been done to him.

Prince Kundai plays Sutter, the one constant character that the action swirls around. He is heartbreakingly innocent and vulnerable as a child then young man, and then wounded and vengeful as an adult—it’s impressive how he can portray such a range (and in so little clothing). Bimpé Pacheco, DK Fashola, Luke Wilson and Roly Botha play everyone else: the self-hating gay white lover, blunt truth-speaking grandma, acrimoniously estranged lesbians Genitalia and Intifada, clueless stepfather, and out gay friend who won’t be part of Sutter’s cruel attempts at belated justice. Of the many jaw-dropping things in Bootycandy, it’s the dexterity of the cast going from one contrasting character to another that is most astonishing. They never break pace or drop energy, and manage to cohere the show, with joy and evident delight when Sutter’s surreal recollections threaten to spiral out of control.

The scenes and moments that Sutter recalls are troubling, despite their outrageous humour. He is baffled by the adults insisting he call his penis his bootycandy—it’s cute but why does it need to be cute? He is hurt by his self-denying lover and shamed by his family who blame him for not being athletic enough (i.e. manly enough) to outrun the man who is following him home.

The play is almost anti-therapy: it doesn’t seem to have been written, nor is it performed, for emotional hygiene. Scenes are chaotic and bizarre, and funny while also harrowing—just like real, untreated memories. This is not a play offering insight into how this or that is true in black, gay experience. It’s a glimpse into one man’s semi-fictional personal history and how his absurd, misunderstood and uncertain start in life shaped him into the muddle he is in present day.

The messy, morally and emotionally ambiguous scenes are not just the opposite of therapy but also anti-theatre. The stage for Bootycandy at the Gate theatre is a raised platform with the audience on three sides. The height of the stage and the proximity of the actors is similar to being at a boxing match as the actors dancing around each other, spar and shove, seduce or bitch-slap one another.

The actors are at times in the front row, interrupting the play to ask what the play is about. They interrupt a particularly devastating scene to accuse Sutter of going too far—’this has all been some sick Fantasy of yours’—and they don’t want to continue. The real company stage manager speaks up from the lighting box, like a deus ex machina made of lighting cues, and concedes to skip ahead to the last scene in the script. These conspicuous theatrical disruptions make an already subversive, unconventional play even harder to grasp—and that’s fine. The discomfort is delightful and it’s a thrill to have the rug pulled from under you repeatedly and riotously throughout the show.

Bootycandy is a salty, bittersweet piece of theatre, and best enjoyed now in the still-grim drawn out end of winter in London.

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