Issa Cookout, Not a BBQ

Tables. Chairs. Paper plates. Plastic forks, spoons, and knives. Grill. Smoker. Barbecue. Tablecloths. Assortment of dishes. Auntie’s mac and cheese. Another’s greens. Another’s red beans and rice. Grandma’s dessert everyone’s trying and failing to replicate. Uncle has got the beers. Cousin Eddy comes through with aux. Brisket, steak, burgers, chicken, fish, anything, and everything on the grill. Kids playing off in the corner. The new partner getting sized up by the family. Cackling, laughter, last-minute grocery runs. Blankets coming out from the closet cause the cousins are staying over. Repurposed items from the last time. The guests impress bringing that one item we all needed and were convinced someone else had covered.

Each cookout is different; defined by the house rules and adapted to accommodate every last-minute change in the lineup. This isn’t a barbecue—the cookout is a uniquely Black experience that serves as one of the most important pillars of joy and celebration in the Black American experience. Once the temperature is hot enough for sandals, short sleeves, and the weatherman has assured us that there will not be rain, the grills come out, calls are made, and the community gathers (but best believe, we’ve got a backup plan for the rain should it come). There is no set parameter for when a cookout is appropriate—in fact, just about any event is an excuse to host one. Baby just turned one? Cookout! Just got married? Fire up the grill! That third cousin is back from their study abroad? Bet. Or—my favorite reason—just because.

Fat Ham takes place in a backyard cookout celebrating the marriage of Juicy’s mother to his uncle Rev following the death of his father Pap. The family uses any and everything available to pull it off—as James Ijames writes in the stage directions, “These balloons are from a birthday party, the streamers are from a baby shower. Christmas lights. It’s a chaotic mass of celebratory kitsch,” As the play unfolds, we see how the wedding/barbecue serves as the crossroads of secrets, grudges, and suppressed longing for joy and freedom. Each character must find their own answer to the question: What does it mean to live free and soft?

The cookout isn’t just a convenient setting to bring Fat Ham’s characters together but is an integral part of experiencing the show in its entirety. Historically, the cookout is far more than a barbecue; it is a safe place for Black people to shed their armor and just be. It’s where traditions are passed on through recipes, kikis let people find out what’s tea in both the community and their families, broken ties can be mended, condolences are exchanged, outsiders such as romantic partners are put to the test, relatives unable to interact often can catch up on lost times, and Black people can simply breathe without having to perform for an audience outside of their own. These spaces are sacred for Black Americans, who have often had the spaces, towns, and infrastructures they built for themselves destroyed. Black Wall Street/Greenwood District, Seneca Village, Overtown; all examples of deliberate violence committed against Black people and their communities in a targeted effort to erase their mark from America. If these names are unfamiliar, perhaps they ring a bell upon hearing what was created over them: Tulsa’s I-244, New York City’s Central Park, and Miami’s I-95. In the wake of so much destruction of the thriving communities Black Americans built for themselves, it is any wonder that these precious backyard spaces are fiercely protected? After so much pain, wouldn’t you to be wary of handing an invitation to the cookout to just anybody?

The importance of cookouts extends to Black immigrants as well. For members of the diaspora, these cookouts (going by different names depending upon one’s place of origin), serve as an irreplaceable anchor, connecting them to a home that is now far away. Many communities of the diaspora hold fast to these gatherings because for many of them, they serve a similar purpose as the Black American cookout. Refuge, community, and comradery in grim times; joy, happiness, and jubilee in prosperous times. In America, these cookouts grow larger as new generations are born, families move closer together, and new friends are invited over to fix themselves a plate of peace. Songs from childhood reemerge, tongues dance to the rhythm of their first language, and the new generation—the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren—are able to establish connections with a part of their identity unable to be reached whether it be due to physical, emotional, or spiritual distance from their familial roots. The weight of trying to make this foreign land, one often hostile to them, is lifted, even if for just a moment, over a hot plate and a beer.

However, while a cookout can be a place of community and connection, it can also be a place of conflict. Old issues can arise and boil over. Some can feel estranged from their community wondering “if I can’t feel at home here, where can I feel home?” Not to mention, everybody always wants to be in your damn business! It is not a perfect space by any means, but where there lies difficulty there is also the opportunity for rebirth. Cookouts can be one of the greatest spaces for healing. It can be a place of understanding and the birthplace for new branches of cookouts. It can open spaces for members who felt that they were the only ones in their family going through struggles with mental health, sexuality, and identity, just to name a few. People find courage to step forward, inspiring others to do the same. As each step is taken, the group collectively peels back the layers of hurt and pain, opening for understanding and support. In this liberation, a new place is built: A place of refuge from judgement, from strife, from stress, from society, from the never-ending storms battering against the weathered siding and cracked windows of the soul. Once this place is created, born, and nurtured, dessert comes out, the drinks flow, music blasts, and the community is made whole again. Not back to what it once was but evolving into something new.

Cleopatra Mavhunga