Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play—a witty, moving, mischievous and profound play folding themes of race, intimacy, racism, and white supremacy—was one of the most memorable pieces of theater last year. It first showed at the New York Theatre Workshop, one of its producers now at Broadway’s Golden Theatre (to Jan. 5, 2020).
This play is the recipient of the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, the Lotos Foundation Prize, the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, and the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Perhaps Tony Awards will now follow. It should start discussions, throw forward discussions, and cause a cultural ruckus far outside the realms of theater.
Slave Play reverberated with me long after I left New York Theatre Workshop that night; how would it feel on Broadway?
Slave Play is still an explosive, raw, and very funny piece of theater about race, sex, and power, as all are acted out on the black body and consciousness.
Without revealing the play’s big twist, it is almost impossible to convey the panoply of its rich components. You may even gasp with the recognition and revelation (and clicked fingers) audible among the audience more off Broadway than on. (Other reviews have revealed the twist, hence perhaps the now-blunted surprise; I will not.)
What can be said is that the play, directed with an intense energy by Robert O’Hara, features three interracial couples, and we meet them first in what seems like the antebellum South on the MacGregor plantation, a few miles south of Richmond, Virginia—the state where Harris grew up. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design and Lindsay Jones’ sound design and original music accentuate the play’s fever dream feeling.
On Broadway, necessarily, the play is bigger in every way; to this critic, some things are gained, others are lost in the increase in this scale. The performances are larger and broader, particularly in the deliberately off-kilter theatrics of the play's first segment. But the new, spectacle-sized aspect of Slave Play on Broadway also muffles some of its most chilling moments and some of its most disturbing tableaux.
Its impact on Broadway has already been headline-making. On Sept. 18, there was a performance for black theatergoers only. Previews started during Fashion Week, with a glamorous party hosted by Telfar Clemens attended by Timothée Chalamet, Lily-Rose Depp, Rose McGowan, and Hari Nef.
Lucas Hedges and Gus Van Sant have been sighted in the stalls. Rihanna was late, entailing a delay in the play starting, and then caused controversy by texting during the show with Harris himself (who then leapt to her defense in the ensuing controversy).
“The patron saint of the play I wrote is literally a pop star, fashion icon, and Demi-goddess named Rihanna,” Harris wrote. “When Dionysus is coming you hold the curtain.” The texting was fine by Harris, as “there’s no right or wrong way to watch the theatre.”
In the play itself, Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango, the only new actor among the principals) seems to be a black slave, and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) her white overseer. Neither seem that wedded to either role; she openly defies him, he seems uncomfortable with her calling him ‘massa’ (master).
He throws a cantaloupe to the ground which she gorges on in an extremely sexual way, and she dances a highly sexual dance too. Strains of Rihanna and Drake break through time, stunning and agonizing her. What is their relationship, and who is in control of whom?
The same question surrounds the relationship of Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones). She is a lady of the house, he a “mulatto” manservant. McNamara’s voice is a flutey wonder of the world. Her lady wants Phillip, but he seems oblivious to her passionate yearnings and entreaties. McNamara’s excessiveness provides a hilarious echo of The Favourite. She wants him to play a “Negro spiritual” on his violin; the solidly self-confident Phillip would prefer Beethoven.
Then there is Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer); the latter white and the former black, two sexy young men; “N---er Gary” is a slave, while “Boot Dustin” is an indentured servant. They wrestle on the ground, as more modern-era music breaks through (“Multi-Love” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra), and then they strip to their underwear (non-antebellum era black Calvin Klein), and Gary orgasms.
Then suddenly, all the characters’ stories change in a way that explains some of the oddnesses that pepper its first act (“Work”) while elucidating the full range of its historical, sexual and cultural politics across its second and third acts, “Process” and “Exorcise.”
Clint Ramos’ simple set is mainly composed of mirrored panels, which significantly reflect ourselves back at us as well as the action on stage. Is that too obvious? Yes, and so be it. I think Ramos and Harris mean the audience to be asking as many questions of itself as the characters end up doing. Beds appear from the mirrors, and the odd prop. But the mirror panels are so significant they are another character and symbol.
All three of the relationships meld sex and bawdy comedy, while asserting and then breaking the rigorously maintained barriers of race of the era. The play deconstructs their relationships, Harris writing pointedly and poetically about three different experiences of black erasure; the performers expertly switch between the very different tonal registers of the piece.
Phillip used to think that not being thought of as black was a sign of success and progress, but then realizes the opposite is true. He felt most recognized, most powerful, when his blackness was sexually objectified.
Gary feels that his blackness has been overseen and underseen in very different ways, and that there has been an insidious, undermining inequality in his relationship with Dustin: he has been ‘the prize’ in this relationship, he feels, and now he wants to state that. Kaneisha’s rage is rooted in what she sees as an unavoidable truth: the literal, corrosively experienced racial poison she sees Jim as embodying.
The damage done by white to black people, echoing down centuries, is the heart of Slave Play, even for those like Phillip who thought they were above it, unaffected by it. The play even has a name for what Kaneisha and Gary apparently suffer from: “RID” (Racialized Inhibiting Disorder), an inability to articulate or locate articulation for race-based trauma, one symptom of which is alexithymia, the inability to describe one’s own feelings. The music both hear when none is playing may anchor itself to their various anxieties.
These phrases and theoretical models belong to another bi-racial couple, Téa (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) who are on stage to facilitate rage, yet are also full of the blurry, soupy language of the academy and therapy circle, which Harris delights in poking fun at.
It is telling how easily the white people on stage at first take up the majority of air to speak about their experiences; their voices hijack a process which is not theirs. Most absurdly, Dustin, who feels offended that the racism he feels has been directed against him has been ignored.
But he’s white, Gary queries; though Dustin insists he is not, leading Gary to explode (Blankson-Wood electrifies the stage at this moment) that he himself is “black, black black, blue black, jet black, raisin black, eerie black.” From being a figure of raucousness, Alana’s pain at Phillip’s self-realization sharpens (this is somehow lost or becomes a moment of fun on Broadway), while Jim’s confusion and sense of offense is quieter.
The black expressions of pain, confusion, and fury are woven into Harris’ intricately argued discourses around power and memory. That is when the gasps of recognition and revelation begin, the actors animating Harris’ words and cultural analysis with a taut emotional sense and wrenching impact. Broadway makes these moments thunderous, in a way that off-Broadway they felt more concentrated, and more quietly on-point.
The play ends far from the antebellum South, at least in terms of time. It also ends far from positively. It is bleak and damning, and all the more provocative for being so. Kaneisha’s final words of the play, stated in an ambiguous, loaded tone by the excellent Kalukango, are aimed squarely at her white partner—and also at all of us in the audience watching Slave Play.
There is nothing like Slave Play on Broadway. The fact that it is on Broadway, playing to full, diverse, and enthusiastic houses is itself a radical moment in theater, and—one hopes—helps signal change.
There will always be something special to this critic about Slave Play in its small-sized incarnation at the New York Theatre Workshop. But its impact and presence on Broadway is, like the play itself, now on a different, wholly-to-be welcomed scale.
This is an adapted review of Tim Teeman's original off-Broadway review of Slave Play.