Throughout his near 20-year career in theatre, Robert O'Hara's work has often been referred to as subversive, but if you ask the Cincinnati native, whose latest work is peculiarly titled Bootycandy and currently playing at Playwrights Horizon, he'll swear that being subversive was never his goal.
"No, not at all," he chuckles. "I write so that I can explore questions and situations and thoughts and to examine truth and reality."
In the opening scene of Bootycandy, a precocious boy quizzes his mother about sex, circumcision and menstruation. In another, two sisters bicker over one deciding to name her unborn child "Genitalia." One other scene has two men in a bar nervously negotiating sex acts.
Described as a "kaleidoscope of sketches interconnecting to tell the story of growing up black and gay," O'Hara says the play originated as an evening of short plays that later took form as a full-length piece presented at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.
"It's a play called Bootycandy, so let's not pretend," he quips. "I've been describing it as if you could imagine Richard Pryor and Jackie Mason and RuPaul got together to have a baby, and that baby is called Bootycandy."
After giving the subversive label more thought, O'Hara furthers: "If it means something other than what you expect of what you have come to believe, then I guess I am subversive... My existence is unexpected and so I just think it's something that [people] are not used to."
For O'Hara — who cut his teeth at the Public Theater, under the tutelage of former artistic director George C. Wolfe, and where his 1996 debut Insurrection: Holding History won the George Oppenheimer/New York Newsday Award for Best New American Play — being unexpected has been a good thing.
To date O'Hara has written screenplays for the likes of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. His playwright repertoire includes Des McAnuff's revival of The Wiz, and his plays Antebellum, Good Breeding and Etiquette of Vigilance.
As a theatre director, the Columbia University School of Art alum helmed the world premieres of Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2) in 2009 and Wild with Happy by Colman Domingo in 2012.
His 2011 film writing and directorial debut, "The Inheritance," won top prize at the American Black Film Festival. Just last year, O'Hara won a $185,000 playwright residency grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funded his position at Wooly Mammoth.
"I've been in the business for almost 20 years and this is my first production at Playwright's Horizon.… I believe in longevity and I believe in maintaining a respect for the art and also being happy without it."
While many of O'Hara's works center on black gay culture, he stresses that his entire body of work should not be limited to just that. "My first play of note examined homosexuality and slavery but most of my plays actually deal with families and history and sexuality and gender and not necessarily homosexuality or gay or black, but it's a mixture.
"I've been gay and black for a very long time, so continuing to write about that is not really something that is fulfilling. It interests me to write about the world and how I exist inside of it."