What Makes Jeremy O. Harris’ ‘Slave Play’ Such a Powerful Play About Racism
Jeremy O. Harris’ stunning work produces gasps of both recognition and revelation in its story of the insidious effects of racism in a series of interracial relationships.
Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play is so powerfully written, and wittily, intelligently damning of white privilege and supremacy that it will reverberate with you long after you have left New York Theatre Workshop.
This play, the recipient of the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, the Lotos Foundation Prize in the Arts and Sciences, and the 2018 Paula Vogel Award, should start discussions, throw forward discussions, and cause a cultural ruckus far outside the realms of theater.
Slave Play is 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 audible among the audience the night I went.
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. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design and Lindsay Young’s sound design and original music accentuate the play’s fever dream feeling.
Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) 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; he 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 four 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 Harris means the audience to be asking as many questions of itself as his characters.
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.
Phillip, with fair skin, 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 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 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, 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.
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, are aimed squarely at her white partner—and also (I think by Harris) at those white members of the audience watching Slave Play.
Slave Play is at New York Theatre Workshop until January 13.