“Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out there in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference.
Ask Robert O’Hara when he left Ohio and he will quickly correct you.
“I didn’t leave at 18,” he laughs. “I escaped.”
The celebrated playwright and director has truly made a name for himself in the theatre world. His artistic efforts have racked up a stunning array of honors including the NAACP Best Play and Best Director Awards, the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play, the Oppenheimer Award, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama, and two Obie Awards, off-Broadway’s highest honor.
But trace all the drama back, and you will find Ohara’s roots right in the heart of Cincinnati, OH. We sat down with O’Hara to talk about early childhood, church antics, and how Ohio finds its way into his work.
How would you describe your childhood in Cincinnati?
Look, of course it was traumatizing being a black gay kid and not really knowing you were a black gay kid in Cincinnati. All I knew was that I was different. But as I look back upon it, it was a really exciting upbringing because I had a lot of family members. My grandmother had 12 kids so I had a lot of cousins, aunts, and uncles. While it was certainly repressed, it was also a calm and rewarding childhood. It’s where I became an artist. A lot of my work harkens back to the things I would do as a kid in Cincinnati, making up plays and songs with my family members. But it was always someplace I was looking to get out of.
Is there an Ohio sensibility that you would say is embedded in your work?
Most definitely. When I think of how many of Toni Morrison’s words are located in that area, it’s really powerful. Ohio is a free state where you can look across the river and see a slave state, and that fucks with you. If you can see slavery and the slave South from across the river, then you know they can also come and get you and drag you back to slavery. That feeling must have been in the water–literally–but also in the psyche of the people who migrated and lived there. There is a pessimism and satire that I find in my work born out of knowing you’re free and but being able to see slavery.
So then you think you would be a different writer had you not been raised in Cincinnati?
Oh, absolutely. If I had grown up in Brooklyn or on the west coast, it would be different than growing up in the Midwest. I had an incredible amount of white friends in elementary school and high school and it actually allowed me to be comfortable with being different as an obviously gay child surviving homophobia and racism in middle America. If I had grown up in a more densely populated place, I wouldn’t be looking to get out of something as much. My upbringing allowed me to want to achieve something, a different type of achievement than if I had not been born and raised in Ohio.
Cincinnati is one of the more faith-based areas, particularly of the big C cities. How did that play into your childhood?
Religion played a big role in my grandmother’s life. I only went to church because they dragged me to church. I’m not religious at all and have little relationship to religion. But my mother would drive 20 miles to drop me off at my grandmother’s so she could take me to church and my mother could go back to bed. It gave my parents a break on a Sunday.
My grandmother had the mouth of a sailor. She would cuss and fuss like a truck driver all morning on a Sunday until we walked into the doors of church, and as soon as that service ended she would be back using a truck driver or sailor’s vernacular. <laughs> Also, there were all the rumors of the preacher having affairs and who is doing what with who. So faith was all about scandal. I look at everything that is organized as suspect so it allowed a healthy sense of skepticism for me in terms of faith. As it played against sexuality, when you have a whole choir of gay men singing in front of you every Sunday, there’s something very <pause> unique about that. <laughs>
Do you get back to Ohio to visit?
95% of my family is still in Ohio, so I do visit every now and then. But because I do live in New York, my family members love visiting here. But I did go back for Thanksgiving last year. My mother demanded I come home. <laughs> Cincinnati has changed that’s for sure. It has become more openly diverse. Some areas used to be completely and totally segregated, and it has changed up.
Are there places you would tell visitors they absolutely have to visit?
Yes! You have to go to two different places and they have to do with food. You have to go to Skyline Chili, and you have to go to LaRosa’s. Before I even go to a hotel or my parents home, I go to Skyline.
What advice do you have for young LGBTQ+ budding playwrights?
Get out as much as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean you have to run and live somewhere else. Get out and see the rest of the world. Expand your worldview. Do not allow your imagination to be limited by your location. I think every artist really needs a goal to fight for. You won’t appreciate Ohio until you have seen other parts of the country or the world. You don’t have to put Ohio in a negative light. But you do have to put it in the context of the rest of the world. So often we think that the state that you are in is the state you will be in for the rest of your life. That is absolutely not the case. So I say, “Get out.”