Darcy A. Zabel
Robert Antonio O’Hara was born on February 21, 1970, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Lillie O’Hara and Robert Bowman. When Robert was twelve, his mother married Robbie Garvin. O’Hara has one sibling, a younger brother named William Johnson.
Cincinnati, O’Hara notes, is an unusual place to grow up when considered in the context of black American history because it is “right across the border from Kentucky. You can literally look across the Ohio River to Kentucky, and just the thought of what slaves who got to the other side must have felt, to turn back around and realize they were free…. Those feelings are in the soil of Cincinnati and rooted in generations of blacks in Cincinnati whether they were born there or moved there and raised children” (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from author’s telephone interviews with O’Hara, February 7 and 14, 2002).
Very early it was clear that Robert Antonio O’Hara was academically gifted. In 1988, O’Hara graduated from Walnut Hills High School, an entrance exam– based college preparatory school in Cincinnati, Ohio. From there, he went to Tufts University, majoring first in political science, then English, and finally theater. In 1992 O’Hara was accepted into the M.F.A. Directing Program at Columbia University.
One of only a handful of openly gay students in his department, in the early 1990s, O’Hara was the only black student in the Columbia directing program. During his first semester of graduate school, during a progress report conference with the chair of his department, O’Hara was told to expand his interests and to experiment with other topics as he seemed to be too interested in gay and African American studies. Challenged by this criticism, O’Hara continued to focus on gay themes and American history.