If you love theater, the StuCo boards and Wirtz Center usually have you covered for entertainment each weekend. But if you're looking for something in the city, Bootycandy might be your next hot ticket. It’s just miles away from campus at the Windy City Playhouse in Irving Park. Starring a Northwestern alumnus, this risqué show boasts a multifaceted comedic cast and a story structure probably unlike anything you’ve seen (for better or for worse).
Rather than following a consistent set of characters through the same storyline, Bootycandy is a series of distinct mini-shows, tied together by recurring appearances of the gay Black protagonist, Sutter, who is played by Travis Turner (Comm '05). The actor capably performs his character as a child, teenager and adult, becoming the audience's sole touchstone amid a series of unrelated vignettes.
Both acts use meta framing devices to attempt to unite these discrete scenes. The end of the first act brings together a conference of playwrights who are working on stories remarkably similar to events in the mini-plays. And without revealing too much, the second-act twist turns Sutter into an actor-director who has pushed his cast members too far.
In such a fluid structure, scenic designer Katie Bell Kenny and lighting designer Lee Fiskness (Comm '03, '09) create a versatile set that keeps the audience grounded. As I noticed about three scenes in, "bootycandy," "dreaming in church," "genitalia," "drinks and desire," "mug" and "conference" are embedded in the walls, and they light up when their related scenes begin.
Populating the set, alongside Turner, are four other brilliant actors: Osiris Khepera, Rob Fenton, Debrah Neal and Krystel McNeil, all playing multiple roles each. After the first scene, in which young Sutter’s mother (played by McNeil) suggests he use the euphemism "bootycandy" for what he'd called his "dick," a completely different actor (played by Khepera) becomes a sermonizing preacher celebrating his own homosexuality. It's unexpected, it's pure joy and he rocks that glittery gold dress so hard. Then, Neal and McNeil play four women talking on the phone, a skilled demonstration of the effects costumes, posture and voice can create. These are just the first three of six scenes in Act 1.
Although the extremely dark second act focuses far more on Sutter, that’s the general idea in Bootycandy – it's a collection of scenes reflecting on sexuality, race and preconceived expectations, something new and thought-provoking every ten minutes.
Leaving Bootycandy, I was dissatisfied with this plot structure. Director and playwright Robert O'Hara created framing devices that I'd never seen onstage before, yet he lobbed them at the audience without follow-through, moving on without a pause to consider. I would have liked to see, for example, how Sutter viewed directing or why the playwrights chose those topics for their works. I think more breathing room for the commentary O'Hara was trying to make on theater would have benefited his point.
At the same time, the actors and technical team did a wonderful job with what they had. The costumes and set design creatively gave context to scenes that left me exhausted from laughter: My favorite was a hilarious breakup ceremony in which one character proclaims, "Today I become your ex and you become my Ex-Lax. I shit you out of my life." And of course Turner deserves a shout-out: He had a hard role to fill, being so many iterations of the same character, yet he pulled it off, drawing my eye every time he entered.
After the show, Turner explained that Northwestern trained him to be an actor who loved researching. In this production, he was constantly asking O'Hara to explain more about Sutter during the rehearsal process. One thing he said he never got from Northwestern was a chance to work with many Black actors. "I don't know what it would have done, what it would have changed … but I really missed that," he said.
A thoughtful answer from an actor you really need to see for yourself. Before you leave Evanston for spring break, I'd recommend a trip to Bootycandy – you'll laugh, you'll gasp and, whether or not you agree about the plot structure, I can promise you'll have fun.
Bootycandy runs through April 15 at the Windy City Playhouse. Edward Mawere will replace Travis Turner on March 28. Tickets for Wednesdays through Fridays are $15 with student ID and the online code "student17."