The 10-person cast of “Barbecue” is assembled in the theater at Lyric Stage Company and about to begin work on the first act of the play. But first there’s an announcement that there are some dialect notes “just for the black cast.” For several moments there’s a lot of laughter and mock outrage. Someone keeps playfully yelling the word “racist.” Finally things quiet down again and there’s a straightforward note about dropping “G” sounds.
The cast indeed includes two separate groups, one of white actors and one of black actors, who spend almost all of their stage time apart. And they are each coached to speak in separate dialects. But while there’s not actually anything sinister about actors accurately simulating the speech patterns of the specific ethnic and socioeconomic groups they are portraying, “Barbecue” deliberately forces a lot of uncomfortable questions about stereotypes and about the portrayal of different ethnicities in popular culture.
This play, which appeared off-Broadway in 2015 and makes its local debut at the Lyric beginning on Friday, is loaded with dramatic shifts in perspective that upend expectations and leave audience members questioning their understanding of what they’ve just seen.
It’s hard to discuss the play without some spoilers, though the surprises continue until the end. Suffice to say, it requires both white and black actors to tell the story of the O’Mallerys, a loud and contentious clan gathered at a public park for a supposed barbecue that is really an intervention for a crack-addled family member they’ve nicknamed Zippity Boom.
Playwright Robert O’Hara says in a telephone interview the play was prompted by the fact that television airwaves are crowded with shows “where it’s, watch the white guy build a house, watch the white guy fix a car, watch a white guy go around the world and eat. I was just thinking, why are we watching all these shows but we’re just watching white people do stuff? Black people eat. Black people renovate houses.”
“Barbecue” poses questions about “what we’re watching and what stories we accept, and from whom,” O’Hara adds.
Director Summer L. Williams also helmed O’Hara’s wild comedy “Bootycandy” last season at Speakeasy Stage Company. Like that play, she says, this one uses humor to get at serious issues. And its use of dramatic sleight-of-hand deliberately pushes audiences out of their comfort zones.
“I love that sense that we’re going to gently rock you into the story, but the goal is to get ready to catapult you into something different,” Williams says. “He sucks us into the world of a play and kind of makes us fall in love with it, and as we come to understand and grow more familiar with it he always upends it for us. It feels jarring and deeply interesting but leaves us feeling a little unsettled. And that’s where he really beats us into shape.”
To preserve some of the play’s surprises, programs won’t be handed out until intermission of “Barbecue” performances. The move echoes Williams’s decision to wait on distributing programs until after each show during the run of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud To Present . . .” that she directed in a co-production by Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson in 2014.
“One of the things I would love to do more fully in all of my work is upend the theatergoing experience. It’s so fake and so controlled,” she says, “so in a lot of my work I try to discombobulate everyone at the top so the way we’re prepared to view a story is altered, and we come from a place that’s more unsettled.”
O’Hara, a Tufts University graduate, is well practiced at daring theatrical gambits. “Bootycandy” has been praised as a much-needed look at homophobia in the black community and derided as a gallery of unhelpful stereotypes. “An American M(a)ul” takes place in a future America in which the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which granted citizenship to former slaves, has been repealed. O’Hara debuts “Mankind” at Playwrights Horizons next season, a play set in a future where women have become extinct.
“It’s exciting to see audiences negotiate what they’re willing to laugh at in public,” O’Hara says. “Clearly ‘Barbecue’ is not for everyone. And certain theater companies would never do ‘Bootycandy.’ But that’s what makes me Robert O’Hara. I’m not trying to write a play that everybody would be comfortable doing everywhere. With some plays, the goal is: How many people can we make comfortable? I just don’t do that type of stuff. I know that’s a losing battle for me.”
In his review of “Barbecue” in The New Yorker, critic Hilton Als described the play as “my idea of an American classic, or the kind of classic we need.” But when asked if his work is part of the famous “conversation about race” that American thought leaders keep predicting will happen as the result of one outrage or another, the playwright says he’s not trying to impart simple lessons about racism.
“I don’t write plays so white people can go to the theater and learn stuff. I write plays so that everyone can go and have a communal experience, where certain things about their existence may be revealed. But we’re all a part of the conversation, whether we actually speak about it or not. Being inside of this machine we call America makes you a part of the conversation.”
At: Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, April 7-May 7. Tickets: Starting at $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com