Black or White, No One Can Escape the Mirror in ‘Slave Play’ on Broadway
Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” shines a light on hard truths that both black and white America would rather ignore around privilege, race, and the necessity of communal healing.
Warning: This article contains key details of the plot of Slave Play.
Beckoning a controlled and yet effortless slow whine, Rihanna’s “Work” remains the kind of dancehall-tinged song that compels you to move. The beat never asks for permission, but the freeing feeling once the music and chorus refrain take hold of your body is magical all the same.
In one version of the video Rihanna is in the foreground whining and flirting with Drake as he watches from a couch. Not until his verse does he get up to join her before largely returning for the duration of the song.
Over the course of the four-minute video, she is simultaneously the object of desire and yet firmly in control of the interaction between them. She is the prize and the gaze between them confirms they both know that.
The visual presents an interesting juxtaposition to the song’s lyrics. Sung in patois, in the first verse Rihanna muses about a love turned sour as a result of being taken for granted. “I believed all of your dreams, adoration...You took my heart and my keys and my patience…” The second verse presents the inverse in which she pleads, “If I get another chance to, I will never, no never neglect you...”
The song, catchiness aside, lays bare a relationship in a moment of crisis and perhaps at a crossroads: one partner feels taken for granted to the point at which they are ready to leave while the other vows to be better. Of the song’s lyrics there’s one line that sticks out, “Nuh body touch me you nuh righteous.” It’s simultaneously a clear boundary to her lover and self affirmation.
Her body and access to it are a privilege of which her partner is not worthy because of their inability to see and value her as the prize she knows herself to be. In a few words she attempts to recalibrate the power imbalance within the relationship.
Displayed high above the stage the lyric hovers over the interactions of three interracial couples: Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), Dustin (James Cusati-Moye) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), and Philip (Sullivan Jones) and Alana (Annie McNamara).
The pairs find themselves, in the present day, at an antebellum fantasy therapy workshop run by Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio). Yes, you read that correctly. The experience, which is meant to rekindle sexual intimacy, is unsurprisingly littered with emotional landmines that the couples and audience can’t anticipate—or escape.
It starts with the set design. The mirrored stage backdrop eliminates the fourth wall and as the stories of each couple unfold so do the moments of horror, occasional comedy, and “Did they really just go there?”
Viewers are left to contend with two reflections—the one on stage, and the one of themselves. The effect makes the audience both participant and observer to their own experience and that of the characters, intensifying the play’s emotionally fraught moments.
At two hours with no intermission, it means there’s also no chance to take a breath. I was sitting three rows from the stage, and there were moments when I caught my reflection and saw myself flinch or clutch my proverbial pearls.
Truthfully, it was tough to process my own visceral responses while needing to be present with the characters. Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps as we look outward at these couples and judge their circumstances and problematic behaviors, we are to look inward and do the same.
The workshop might be a twisted therapy for the couples, but in some ways it is therapy for the audience too. You can’t address what you can’t see, and you can’t see what you can willingly choose to run from.
So there you are, stuck—if you choose to see it that way—in a communal setting airing the nation’s dirty laundry on race, racism, and privilege. And perhaps in doing so, you hold up a mirror to pieces of your own life.
When Slave Play premiered last year at New York Theatre Workshop (where it was reviewed by my colleague Tim Teeman), I decided not to see it. As a black woman I have too often felt my eyes and heart under siege from the constant social media loop of black bodies being harmed. I had no interest in paying to watch what I figured would be the subjugation of black bodies circa the 18th century. Plus, I felt the title was unnecessarily incendiary. (I still do.)
As a culture writer and avid theater goer, I reasoned that good work ought to stand on its own merit, without an eye roll-inducing title that left me wondering, “Who is this for?”
And, quite frankly, the rave reviews by primarily white theater critics made me pause. I couldn’t help but question whether the work pandered to the woke, white liberal gaze by traumatizing black bodies and psyches for critical and commercial success. (It doesn’t, but the topics explored in the play mean that triggers are inevitable.)
Despite my misgivings, when the Broadway run was announced I decided, finally, to see it. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was something else. I’m not really sure. Knowing only that it took place on a plantation, I opted not to read anything prior to the show in an attempt to be a blank emotional slate.
Watching the vignettes of each couple unfold, I found myself at turns not surprised and at others wincingly awestruck. The opening scene of Kaneisha, who is a slave, dancing to “Work” in the home of Jim, an overseer, should’ve been the first clue that the work might’ve been more contemporary than I had thought.
Still, I was emotionally hesitant about where it was going and, more importantly, reluctant to go there with it. Bit by bit as we watched the dynamics between the three couples, the black partner was by and large what I perceived to be subservient in the sexual encounter. It was cringeworthy and I kept thinking “where are WE going?!” Just as I was getting squirmish and my discomfort intensified, Jim asked “Starbucks, anyone?”
A few minutes later we were off the plantation (whew!) and sitting in on the group therapy. The plantation brought discomfort over the historical treatment of black bodies; however, the therapy session elicited discomfort over the mental and emotional hoops black folks continue to jump through—no less in their intimate relationships. Still it presented an important connective narrative tissue that I can respect and appreciate.
In an experience intended to center the black partners and encourage them to share and explore their feelings, the white partners continuously took literal and emotional space away from them.
At several turns they opted out of participating—one briefly left the therapy space, another refused to “dignify” their partner with an answer to a question posed, and the other decided to interpret what their partner thought rather than simply allowing them to speak.
Even in a space firmly rooted around blackness, there was an expectation that they would be accommodated and catered to. While that didn’t surprise me it was problematic given the context. Privilege, in this case white, shows up even in the most intimate of relationships and in doing so continues systematic, oppressive behavior in a space where it should be lessened. After all, don’t we all want to feel that inside the emotional walls of our relationships we can be insulated from the detrimental systems and structures of the outside world?
The white partners didn’t understand this— that their love was supposed to be a temporary refuge. They thought they were there to talk about sex but the real conversation lay in unearthing the lack of control and visibility their partners felt they didn’t have and had to fight for.
Still, no one is safe in Slave Play. In the fantasy, Harris explores the systemic issues and reach of privilege in the context of intimate interracial relationships. But in the group therapy session, he elicits a call for introspection and accountability within the black community. In some black partners, he addresses the paradox of proximity to whiteness as something to be lauded and yet side-eyed.
Philip is biracial and despite having overt racist experiences in his life seems oblivious to them. He sees himself as neither black nor white, but just “Philip” and thinks he isn’t treated any differently until a belated moment of clarity.
Harris’ choice to make a point about the tradition of passing and the reach of colorism as a protective shield is a painful reminder that for some black people, literal proximity to whiteness is still something to aspire to and align with.
Whether it’s the 1700s or 2019, Harris reminds black folks that we too need to engage in communal emotional labor to address and undo the traumas inflicted on us that we continue to inflict on each other.
While Philip is a proxy for exploring issues around racial identity, Gary highlights the dualities of gentrification, particularly for young and upwardly mobile black adults.
When he and Dustin get into an argument about the decision to move from East Harlem, Dustin calls out his hypocrisy. He notes that Gary bemoans gentrification and yet revels in the trappings of it—boutique fitness shops, kombucha on tap, and so on. Gary is outraged but as he recoils there’s a hint of truth in Dustin’s assertion.
Yes, we fiercely want to protect the cultural fabric of our neighborhoods from those who would desire to whitewash them. But if we’re honest, we also enjoy a plethora of options that come from inhabiting gentrified neighborhoods. These options often have markers that bear a proximity to whiteness as it relates to what constitutes a “good” neighborhood. We are simultaneously part of the problem and the solution. It’s a hard truth, but there it is.
Still, this is a story about blackness and the most impactful points of Slave Play are the “A-ha!” moments of the black characters. It’s beautiful to watch them as they grapple and accept the fullness of who they are and want to be, both inside and outside of their partnerships.
It’s these moments that remain with me even as I continue to unpack the lasting impressions the play has made on me.
As Dustin and Gary spar over Dustin’s denial over his proximity to whiteness (we never learn his racial background) and the different life that comes with it, Gary has an emotional epiphany. He finally realizes that his worthiness and sense of self is not tied to or determined by the man on his arm just because he looks white.
Though his revelation and subsequent conversation seemed to signal the end of the relationship I found myself excited for Gary’s future. The moment of realizing you’re more than enough just as you are is pivotal in identity development. Too often the value of blackness is weighed against standards of whiteness. The personal repudiation of that metric is a moment of profound reckoning and awakening, with a far-reaching effect on the way you walk through the world.
Kaneisha, likewise, has an awakening of sorts. Torn between the love she has for her white, British husband she realizes that his foreignness doesn’t make him different. In a particularly painful moment she calls him a “virus” and essentially says that he embodies the sins of his forefathers. He is floored.
Kaneisha reveals that she never had the desire to be with a white man, let alone fall in love with one. She wrestles with and wonders what her ancestors would think of their union and whether it’s time to move on. It’s painful to watch their interaction but uplifting to hear Kaneisha making her truth a priority, regardless of how ugly it may sound to them both.
She lays bare her frustration of not being heard and reminisces about their time together as if to say goodbye. As we watch what appears to be the dissolution of their marriage, Jim makes an attempt to show Kaneisha that he is committed to listening and understanding her.
All the while, “Work” plays in the background, at times almost as ambient noise. It seems that his effort is not enough, though we’ll never know. As he appears dejected from their interaction, she regains her composure and calmly thanks him for listening.
I couldn’t help but think that the “thank you” was not just for Jim but all of us too—a polite and exhausted coda to a singular Broadway experience.