Review: ‘Slave Play,’ Four Times as Big and Just as Searing
Jeremy O. Harris’s Off Broadway hit about race and sex in America shakes things up on Broadway.
- Slave Play
- NYT Critic's Pick
- Broadway, Drama, Play
- 2 hrs.
- Closing Date:
- John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St.
Though it’s mild, paradoxical and perhaps a bit prurient to say so, “Slave Play” is a happy surprise.
It’s mild because Jeremy O. Harris’s play, which opened at the Golden Theater on Sunday, is one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years.
It’s a paradox because what could be happy in a play about pain? A play so serious, so furious and so deeply engaged in the most intractable conflicts of American life that it became both a cause célèbre and a scandal before it opened?
And it’s a bit prurient because when we talk about the provocations of “Slave Play” — and the people who saw it downtown last year at New York Theater Workshop have been talking about it almost nonstop since — what we usually mean is sex: the whip, the dildo, the nudity, the boots, the bondage, the orgasms both achieved and aborted. Those things are indeed a surprise, at least if you haven’t watched television this millennium.
But sex is more than titillation in “Slave Play”; it is the crucible in which Mr. Harris performs a thought experiment. If black people in intimate partnerships with white people felt safe to say how they needed to be seen, would their white partners be able and willing to comply? Or are black people forever condemned by the legacy of slavery to live “squarely in the blind spot” of their nonblack partners’ “myopia?”
Though the experiment is carried out in a complex format — one that blurs satire and minstrelsy and comedy and drama — this is not some avant-garde nonsense producing microscopic results. In focusing on three messed-up interracial partnerships, “Slave Play” has nothing less than the messed-up interracial partnership of our whole country in its sights.
If only our whole country could go on a weeklong retreat to explore these issues, as the three couples do. (Read on judiciously if you want to preserve the play’s surprises.) Their retreat, at a former plantation outside Richmond, Va., has been designed to help the black partners “process” their anhedonia — their inability to get pleasure from their white partners — through a series of exercises including, on Day 4, role play as slaves.
In that role play, Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) takes on the persona of a “disgusting little bed wench” to “Massa Jim” — that is, her husband (Paul Alexander Nolan), putting on a Southern accent. Phillip (Sullivan Jones) portrays a cultured house slave who agrees to be dominated by his partner, Alana (Annie McNamara), playing the plantation’s neurotic mistress. Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) casts himself as a field slave in charge of a white indentured servant played by his narcissistic boyfriend, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer).
In the play’s first section, called “Work,” these three couples try to reconnect sexually in their antebellum alter egos (and in Dede Ayite’s witty costumes) while Mr. Harris and the play’s director, Robert O’Hara, press every outrageous button they can. (It’s just the beginning when Kaneisha twerks to Rihanna, begging Massa Jim to call her a “Negress.”) For some audience members — not to mention social media kibitzers — just seeing black characters take on reviled stereotypes may be too much to bear.
But the play’s ambition is built on this outrageous foundation. In the second part, called “Process,” the couples discuss the outcomes of their role play under the guidance of two psychologists — Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) — who developed the therapy. Here, Mr. Harris’s satire of academic gassiness and self-help psychobabble does double duty: It’s hilarious (even if a bit overdrawn) and yet illuminating. As the couples begin to pry ever more deeply into their troubles, we are the beneficiaries of their painful insights.
What we learn in lockstep with them is that the black subjects — Kaneisha, Phillip and Gary — are prized by their lovers despite their blackness instead of because of it. The role play, designed to flip that polarity, has forced the white partners to look at color and see it deeply, even at the risk of mortification.
This dynamic is pushed to a thrilling conclusion in the play’s third section, called “Exorcise,” in which one couple faces the fallout of their work. A brilliant little play in itself, “Exorcise” is as wrenching a portrait of moral gridlock as anything in Arthur Miller, as weirdly lyrical as Tennessee Williams and as potently heightened as Suzan-Lori Parks.
I wish I could see what Mr. O’Hara, who often directs his own coruscating plays, could do with those authors. (His staging of “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Williamstown Theater Festival this summer was revelatory.) His showmanship both leavens and deepens difficult material and was crucial in turning “Slave Play” into the event it was downtown.
Uptown, his staging has grown broader and funnier but no less trenchant in the 800-seat Golden than it was in a space one-quarter the size; the continuous embroidering of marvelous detail fills any gaps that might have opened in the expansion. (Watch Phillip take refuge under his hoodie when he gets overwhelmed, or Alana scramble after her notebook as if it might protect her from what she’s learning.) The returning cast — especially Mr. Cusati-Moyer as the boyfriend who pathetically insists he is not as white as he looks — has likewise amped up the emotional volume; they have a bigger house to bring down.
Their performances make that of the only new cast member — Ms. Kalukango — even more distinct and grave by comparison. As Kaneisha becomes the center of the play’s argument, you see her struggle to express herself playing out on her face before she has the words. When the words do come, they are all the more devastating.
Devastating and, for white people, or at any rate for me, painful. And why shouldn’t they be? The best plays aren’t just about empathizing with the oppressed; they’re also about accepting our connection to the oppressors. With asperity but also love, “Slave Play” lets us all see ourselves in the muddle that is race in America now. There’s even a giant mirrored wall in Clint Ramos’s set to make sure we do.
Such reflections are no longer common on Broadway. If “Slave Play” can bring them to a bigger audience — even an audience that is shocked or offended — it will be a happy surprise indeed. Shock and offense may be just the ticket now.
Tickets Through Jan. 5, 2020, at the Golden Theater, Manhattan; 212-947-8844, slaveplaybroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours.
Ancient Roman play by Plautus
|Characters||Ergasilus (a parasite)|
Philocrates (a free-born captive of Hegio)
Tyndarus (slave of Philocrates)
Stalagmus (fugitive slave of Hegio)
|Setting||Aetolia, before the house of Hegio|
Captivi is a Latinplay by the early RomanplaywrightTitus Maccius Plautus. The title has been translated as The Captives or The Prisoners, and the plot focuses on slavery and prisoners of war. Although the play contains much broad humor, it is a relatively serious treatment of significant themes compared to most of Plautus’ other comedies. Plautus himself points out the difference in tone between this play and his other works in Captivi’sprologue.
Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus, from the Greek district of Elis, have been captured in war with another Greek region, Aetolia. They are now prisoners and slaves bought by Hegio, a well-to-do resident of Aetolia, who is planning to trade them for his son, Philopolemus, who has been captured in Elis. Pretending to be each other, the supposed slave Philocrates is sent to make the trade, while Tyndarus risks his life by remaining.
A friend of Philocrates named Aristophontes has also been captured, and Tyndarus’ efforts to fool Hegio by claiming that Aristophontes is insane are unsuccessful. When Hegio finds out from Aristophontes that he has been deceived, he sends Tyndarus to the quarries for backbreaking labor. Declaring that dying courageously is not an everlasting death, Tyndarus tries to convince Hegio that his own loyalty to Philocrates is right.
Comic relief is provided by a sponger, Ergasilus, looking for a free dinner from Hegio. He has learned that Hegio's son Philopolemus has returned to Aetolia, and he uses this knowledge to get a free meal from Hegio, then proceeds to go wild in the kitchen. Hegio’s former slave Stalagmus, who stole Hegio's other son when he was four years old, also arrives on the scene and confesses his iniquity. Eventually everybody discovers that Tyndarus is that stolen son, causing Hegio to realize he should have treated him better when he was his captive slave. Hegio and his two sons, Philopolemus and Tyndarus, are reunited in a happy ending.
Unlike most of Plautus’ comedies, this play offers little in the way of sexual titillation and instead concentrates on rather serious subjects: personal freedom, slavery and war. Although the mistaken identity elements of the plot are sometimes played for laughs and the sponger Ergasilus is brought on for some silly stage business, there are also quite serious speeches about the fate of slaves and the realities of war. In fact, the play begins with Philocrates and Tyndarus heavily and painfully shackled, and the harshness of their treatment counterbalances the humorous by-play that Plautus injects into the proceedings to keep his audience amused.
The protagonist Hegio is an interesting character, more deeply drawn than most of Plautus' other figures, who tend to be comic stereotypes. He is shown as capable of cruelty and quite impulsive, but also as generous and ultimately sympathetic. The master-slave relationship between Philocrates and Tyndarus is also portrayed with a sensitivity rare in Plautus, who actually congratulates himself on his unaccustomed seriousness in the play’s prologue. Still, Plautus offers enough horseplay, especially by Ergasilus, to keep a Roman audience from souring on his “noble” aspirations.
The Germanpoet and philosopherGotthold Ephraim Lessing famously pronounced Captivi to be the finest play ever staged. This hyperbolic praise has been deprecated by later critics, but the play has still earned plaudits for treating important ethical issues. Ben Jonson indirectly paid tribute to the play by adapting the plot of Captivi for his early comedy The Case is Altered. The lack of obvious sexual humor, so common in Plautus’ other works, has also occasioned much critical comment and occasional approval.
Less sympathetic critics, such as E.F. Watling, have written harshly about Captivi’s loose plotting, rushed conclusion, and too-short time scheme. Others have dismissed these concerns as rather pedantic and irrelevant to a play that does not pretend to be rigorously realistic.
In 2016, Jeff S. Dailey directed a limited-run Off Broadway production at the John Cullum Theatre in midtown Manhattan, using an amalgamation of several Victorian translations. His direction won a Jean Dalrymple Award for Innovative Theatre, in the category of Best Direction of a Classical Play.
Jeremy O. Harris
American playwright and actor
Jeremy O. Harris (born c. 1989) is an American playwright, actor, and philanthropist, known for his plays "Daddy" and Slave Play. The latter received 12 nominations at the 74th Tony Awards, breaking the record previously set by the 2018 revival of Angels in America for most nominations for a non-musical play. Harris was the winner of the 2018 Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, given by the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. A profile in the New York Times said that Harris's "ability to render subconscious trauma into provocative theatrical expression, as potentially unsettling as entertaining, has earned him a lot of attention in a very short time."Out called him "the queer black savior the theater world needs."
Harris grew up in a military family, moving often before settling in Martinsville, Virginia. He has since lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. He attended the Carlisle School in Martinsville, Virginia. Harris studied toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from The Theatre School at DePaul University in 2009 but was cut from the program after a year. He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama in 2019.
Harris took a role in the play Jon at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He worked as an actor in Chicago, then moved to Los Angeles to further his career. There he began a collaboration with musician Isabella Summers that resulted in the play Xander Xyst, Dragon 1; the play was produced at ANT Fest 2017 in New York. He had a residency at the MacDowell Colony, where he wrote the play “Daddy”, in which a young black artist (Franklin) becomes involved with an older European art collector (Andre).“Daddy” served as Harris's writing sample when he applied to the Yale School of Drama, where he began studies in the fall of 2016.
While still at Yale, Harris wrote Slave Play. It was produced at Yale in October 2017, and won the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award and the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award at the 2018 American College Theater Festival. It was then produced off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop under the direction of Robert O'Hara in 2018, Harris's first professional production as playwright. The play addresses sexuality and racial trauma in America. It begins with interracial sexual violence on a slave plantation in the American South and continues in present-day America at a sex therapy retreat for interracial couples. The couples include black participants who are no longer able to receive pleasure from their white partners. The white partners have a blind-spot about the role that race plays in their relationships. Critic Jesse Green summarized the play's message, saying "that one race lives with history each day while another pretends not to." Though critically acclaimed, the play drew ire from those who found the play's content disrespectful of African-American history. For the 2021 Tony Awards, Slave Play was nominated for a historic total of 12 awards.
In 2018, Harris was awarded the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, which includes a residency at the off-BroadwayVineyard Theatre. In 2019, The New Group and the Vineyard Theatre co-produced a revised version of Harris's earlier play, “Daddy”, starring Alan Cumming. Reviewer Christian Lewis called the play "a bold, experimental, political, and important work of theater that will not soon be forgotten."New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley noted some excellent performances, but found the dialogue "endless and circular and repetitive" and the play too "cerebral."
In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, sparking the start of the modern LGBT rights movement, Queerty named him one of the Pride50 “trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people.”
In November 2019, an experimental work entitled Black Exhibition, credited under the pseudonym @GaryXXXFisher, debuted at the Brooklyn theater Bushwick Starr. Using Ntozake Shange's term choreopoem to describe its structure, Harris combines language and movement in a work that centers on five characters: San Francisco writer Gary Fisher, Kathy Acker, Yukio Mishima, Samuel R. Delany, and Missouri college athlete Michael L. Johnson.
Harris is a co-author on the screenplay for the 2021 film Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo. The film follows a road trip that results in sex-trafficking, and is based on a real-life Twitter thread.
In early 2020, Harris signed a deal with HBO, and is developing a pilot as well as becoming a co-producer for season 2 of Euphoria, after consulting on the first season. More recently, he set $50,000 commissions for new stage work.
Harris published a condensed version of his play Yell: A Documentary of My Time Here in n+1 magazine's Fall 2020 issue. Harris describes the full play as "a site-specific document of [his] time in the space of Yale School of Drama."
As of 2020[update], Harris has pledged and redistributed a significant portion of his earnings from collaborations with the fashion industry and an HBO deal to The New York Theater Workshop, libraries across the United States, and microgrants to the Bushwick Starr theater in New York.
For the New York Theater Workshop, Harris has created two $50,000 commissions for new works by Black women playwrights. He produced streaming for both “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” and “Circle Jerk,” donated a collection of plays by Black writers to one library in each of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam, and pledged various fees and royalties from “Slave Play” to fund $500 microgrants, administered by the Bushwick Starr theater, to 152 U.S.-based playwrights.
In 2020, Harris has sent a letter to then-president-elect Joe Biden, urging him to revive the Federal Theatre Project, and then used an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers to further advocate the idea.
Harris is Black and gay. Interviews frequently mention Harris's physical appearance, including his 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) stature, and what GQ called his "dandyish style."
List of works
- Xander Xyst, Dragon 1 (2017)
- Slave Play (2018)
- "Daddy": A Melodrama (2016, revised 2019)
- Water Sports; or, Insignificant White Boys (2019)
- Black Exhibition (2019)
- Yell: A Documentary of My Time Here (revised 2020)
- A Boy’s Company Presents: ‘Tell Me If I’m Hurting You’ (2021)
- ^Shapiro, Ari (September 20, 2019). "With 'Slave Play,' A Young Playwright Provokes His Way To Broadway". NPR. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
- ^ abcdefKumar, Naveen (November 28, 2018). "A Playwright Who Won't Let Anyone Off the Hook". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^ abPaulson, Michael (December 23, 2020). "'It's More Money Than I Imagined.' So He's Giving Some of It Away". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
- ^Buchanan, David (October 15, 2020). "'Slave Play' breaks Tony nominations record for a play with a staggering 12 bids". goldderby.com. Retrieved December 15, 2020.
- ^"Paula Vogel Playwriting Award". Vineyard Theatre. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^ abStreet, Mikelle (November 8, 2018). "Meet Jeremy O. Harris: The Queer Black Savior the Theater World Needs". www.out.com. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^ abcdefHawgood, Alex (August 17, 2016). "Jeremy O. Harris, a Young Actor and Playwright, Asks Big Questions". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^"Jeremy O. Harris, the Mind Behind Off-Broadway Breakout Daddy, Actually Prefers Mommies". Interview.
- ^Jung, E. Alex (March 6, 2019). "How to Fuck With White Supremacy". Vulture. New York Magazine. Retrieved March 24, 2019.
- ^McEntee, Billy (February 5, 2019). "Jeremy O. Harris Continues His Firecracker Season with "Daddy"". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^Saxena, Jaya (March 27, 2019). "Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Is Blowing Up Broadway". www.gq.com. Retrieved August 23, 2019.
- ^"Bio—Jeremy O. Harris". www.jeremyoharris.me. Retrieved August 23, 2019.
- ^"Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1 | ANT Fest 2017". Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^ abBrantley, Ben (March 31, 2019). "Review: This 'Daddy' Has Issues. A Pool and Alan Cumming, Too". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^"SLAVE PLAY by Jeremy O. Harris. Yale School of Drama, 2017". Issuu. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^ abcKennedy Center (May 3, 2018). "Award and Scholarship Recipients of the 2018 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival"(PDF). The Kennedy Center. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^Green, Jesse (January 13, 2019). "Review: Race and Sex in Plantation America in 'Slave Play'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^Daniels, Karu F. "Rising Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Addresses Backlash Over Controversial Slave Play". The Root. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^Megarry, Daniel (March 2019). "Jeremy O. Harris". Gay Times. pp. 32–35. ISSN 0950-6101.
- ^Paulson, Michael (October 15, 2020). "'Jagged Little Pill' and 'Slave Play' Lead 2020 Tony Nominations". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 26, 2021.
- ^ abClement, Olivia (September 7, 2018). "Jeremy O. Harris Named 11th Recipient of Paula Vogel Playwriting Award". Playbill. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^Lewis, Christian (March 6, 2019). "Review: Jeremy O. Harris's "Daddy" is a Masterpiece of Melodrama". Medium. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^"Queerty Pride50 2019 Honorees". Queerty. Retrieved June 15, 2019.
- ^Gremore, Graham (June 14, 2019). "Playwright Jeremy O. Harris is "the queer black savior the theater world needs"". www.queerty.com. Retrieved June 15, 2019.
- ^Paulson, Michael (November 4, 2019). "Secret From 'Slave Play' Creator: Surprise Show in Brooklyn". The New York Times. Retrieved November 26, 2019.
- ^Green, Jesse (November 12, 2019). "Review: In 'Black Exhibition,' a Playwright Exposed". The New York Times. Retrieved November 26, 2019.
- ^Thorne, Will (March 2, 2020). "'Slave Play' Writer Jeremy O. Harris Inks Overall Deal With HBO". Variety. Retrieved April 3, 2020.
- ^Evans, Greg (December 4, 2020). "'Slave Play' Playwright Jeremy O. Harris & New York Theatre Workshop Set $50,000 Commissions For New Stage Work". Deadline. Retrieved December 5, 2020.
- ^"Yell: A Documentary of My Time Here". n+1. November 11, 2020. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
- ^Padgett, Donald (December 8, 2020). "Watch Jeremy O. Harris Scam Seth Meyers On His On Show, Yet Again". Out. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
- ^"Introducing Jeremy O. Harris: The Theater World's Vital New Voice". GQ. November 21, 2018. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
- ^"Prize Recipients". The Lotos Foundation. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
Slave Play is a three-act play by Jeremy O. Harris. The play is about race, sex, power relations, trauma, and interracial relationships. It follows three interracial couples undergoing "Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy" because the black partners no longer feel sexual attraction to their white partners. The title refers both to the history of slavery in the United States and to sexual slavery role-play.
Harris originally wrote the play in his first year at the Yale School of Drama, and it debuted on a major stage on November 19, 2018, in an off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop staging directed by Robert O'Hara. It opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre on October 6, 2019. In 2019, Slave Play was nominated for Best Play in the Lucille Lortel Awards, and Claire Warden won an Outstanding Fight Choreography Drama Desk Award for her work in the play. The play has been the center of controversy due to its themes and content. At the 74th Tony Awards, Slave Play received 12 nominations, breaking the record set by the 2018 revival of Angels in America for most nominations for a non-musical play, though it did not receive any awards.
- Kaneisha – A 28-year-old black woman who is in a relationship with Jim. She plays as a slave in the first act and she has anhedonia. She speaks in a natural Southern dialect throughout.
- Jim – A 35-year-old wealthy white man who is in a relationship with Kaneisha. He plays a slave overseer in the first act, and has a British accent in the following acts.
- Phillip – A 30-year-old mixed-race man who is in a relationship with Alana. He plays a mulatto servant in the first act and he has anhedonia.
- Alana – A 36-year-old white woman who is in a relationship with Phillip. She plays a mistress in the first act.
- Dustin – A 28-year-old gay white man who is in a relationship with Gary. He is "a white man but the lowest type of white—dingy, and off-white." He plays as an indentured servant in the first act.
- Gary – A 27-year-old gay black man who is in a relationship with Dustin. He plays a black overseer in the first act and he has anhedonia.
- Teá – A 26-year-old mixed-race woman who is in a relationship with Patricia. She studies black feminism and queer theory, and is holding a study in Racialized Inhibiting Disorder in interracial couples with Patricia.
- Patricia – A 30-year-old light-skinned brown woman who is in a relationship with Teá. She studies cognitive psychology, and is holding a study in Racialized Inhibiting Disorder in interracial couples with Teá.
Act One: "Work"
Act One begins at McGregor Plantation, a southern cotton plantation in pre-Civil WarVirginia. The first act chronicles three private meetings and sexual encounters of three interracial couples. The play begins with the song "Work" by Rihanna playing in the McGregor's overseer cottage. Kaneisha, a slave, begins to twerk to the song when Jim, a white slave owner, walks in holding a whip. Jim is repeatedly uncomfortable when Kaneisha calls him "Master," but berates her for not cleaning the room better and throws a cantaloupe on the ground and tells Kaneisha to eat it. As Kaneisha eats the cantaloupe off the ground in a dog-like manner, she begins to dance again, which confuses and arouses Jim. The overseer then initiates sex with Kaneisha. When she asks to be called a "nasty, lazy negress," he instead proceeds to perform cunnilingus.
The scene transitions to the boudoir of Madame McGregor, the wife of Master McGregor. Madame McGregor, or Alana, calls upon Phillip, her mulatto servant, and asks him to play the fiddle. Phillip begins to play Beethoven's Op. 132. Alana stops him, calling European music boring, and asks him to play "negro" music. Phillip plays "Pony" by Ginuwine, and Alana begins to dance suggestively and then grinds on Phillip. She says she is under Phillip's mulatto spell and she wants to be inside of him. She then uses a dildo to penetrate him, asking him if he likes being in the woman's position. Phillip replies that he is unsure.
In the McGregor's barn, Dustin, a white indentured servant, and Gary, a black slave, are together. Gary is in charge of Dustin and taunts him, finding it humorous that he is in charge of a white man because of Dustin's status as an indentured servant. Gary kicks Dustin down and asks Dustin to dust his boot. He calls him "Boot Dustin" and tells him that he is lesser than other white people. The song “Multi-Love” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra begins to play. The two fight before they engage in sexual intimacy. Gary tell Dustin to get on the ground and has him lick Gary's boot clean; this causes Gary to orgasm. He suddenly starts crying and cannot be comforted by Dustin.
The scene shifts back to the other couples. Phillip keeps playing music that Alana does not like on his fiddle and Kaneisha and Jim are engaged in doggy style sex. Kaneisha asks again to be called a "negress." Even as Kaneisha nears orgasm, Jim stops participating when Kaneisha calls him "Masta Jim". Jim then switches to speaking in a British accent and tells Kaneisha that he is not comfortable with the situation. Jim uses his safeword, "Starbucks," to end the encounter.
Suddenly, new characters in modern clothing, Patricia and Teá (also an interracial couple) come into the room. They recommend for the three couples to meet back at the main house soon. It is revealed that in reality the characters are modern couples participating in a role-playing exercise meant to improve intimacy between white and black partners.
Act Two: "Process"
The second act is dedicated to a contemporary group therapy session among the three couples to treat their inability to experience sexual pleasure. The therapists, Patricia and Teá, speak through affirmations and academic jargon for most of the session. They are on Day Four of the therapy, which focuses on fantasy play.
Dustin begins by noting that Gary came, which he could not do before, but Gary counters that Dustin was uncomfortable in making his whiteness hyper-visible. Alana enjoyed the release of the fantasy and asks Phillip if he enjoyed it too, noting that he got an erection when he had trouble before. Jim keeps interrupting speakers with laughter; Teá asks him to share, especially since he was the one who said the safeword. Jim is confused and overwhelmed by the therapy. Teá clarifies that the therapy, titled Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, was designed to help black partners feel pleasure again with their white partners. Jim is uncomfortable playing the role of the slave overseer and demeaning his wife, and believes the experience is traumatizing and ruining his relationship with Kaneisha. Kaneisha feels frustrated and betrayed that Jim did not give what she asked of him.
After Patricia and Teá read back to the group what they have said, Alana points out that mostly white men are speaking. Dustin insists that he is not white. Dustin and Gary get back into an old argument over Dustin wanting to move into a more gentrified neighborhood. Dustin refuses to label himself as white, and Gary feels that through this he erases Gary's identity. Phillip, who has not spoken much, says that the therapy seems fake to him. Alana speaks over him, still upset about Jim saying the safeword.
Patricia and Teá explain the origins of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy in treating anhedonia, with Patricia speaking over Teá. The couple shaped it as their thesis together at Smith and then Yale. They are foregrounding the study both through their experiences in their own relationship and their academic background. They state that anhedonia is caused by racial trauma passed down through history: black partners may be unable to enjoy sex with their white partners because of “Racialized Inhibiting Disorder." Teá previously experienced anhedonia with Patricia, and it was through fantasy play that she worked out her racial trauma. Symptoms associated with Racialized Inhibiting Disorder include anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and "musical obsession disorder."
Phillip says none of his partners are able to see him as black and he struggles with being mixed race. Gary realizes that the song he often hears, “Multi-Love”, was imagined due to "musical obsession disorder." Kaneisha says she felt in control during the fantasy play, but Jim took that away from her by using the safeword; Gary agrees but Phillip does not. It is revealed that Phillip and Alana met because her ex-husband had a cuckold fetish, and that when Phillip was with her under those pretenses, he felt sexually excited because he was viewed as black by her husband. Alana insists it had nothing to do with race, and now that they are in a committed relationship Alana views him as a complex person. Alana breaks down. Gary confronts Dustin, asking why he always says he is not white. Gary questions why they are still together, and he and Dustin almost get into a fight before Patricia and Teá break it up.
Jim starts to read something he wrote on his phone. He does not understand why Kaneisha looks at him with disgust, like he is "a virus," nor does he know what he is supposed to do. Kaneisha realizes that "virus" is the description she has been searching for, referencing the diseases introduced by Europeans which decimated the indigenous peoples of the Americas. She says she knows now that she cannot experience pleasure because she cannot forget her disgust with Jim's race. She confronts Patricia and Teá, saying they are wrong: the problem is within the white partners, not a disorder within the black partners. Kaneisha is overwhelmed as “Work” by Rihanna begins playing again.
Act Three: "Exorcise"
In the third act, "Work" plays as Kaneisha is packing in a room and Jim comes in. Kaneisha says that what she needs isn't better communication, but for Jim to simply listen. Jim is silent as Kaneisha recounts how they met, and then times in her childhood when she had to visit plantations on school field trips. As the only black girl, she felt a need to act proud for her "elders" watching her. She says she fell in love with Jim, a white man, because he was not American. Jim begins to initiate foreplay and the music rises while Kaneisha continues that the relationship went downhill three years ago, when she stopped feeling sexual pleasure because she began to see him as foreign and frightening. She saw Jim's whiteness and power, and that he also has "the virus", because though he is not American, he benefits from being white while being unaware of the privilege that whiteness gives him. She says that Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy and the fantasy play gave her a sense of peace because she feels the elders watching her again; the elders do not care that she is with "a demon / who thinks he’s a saint", but simply want the two of them to know he is a demon.
Suddenly, Jim calls Kaneisha a "negress" and gags her; the music stops. Jim returns to performing his slave owner role, dominating and insulting Kaneisha. She silently consents to continue, but when Jim initiates forceful sex she struggles free and screams the safeword. She begins to cry, then laugh, and Jim cries as well as they comfort each other. Kaneisha stands and thanks Jim for listening.
Slave Play deals with the themes of race, sex, power relations, trauma, and interracial relationships. Lapacazo Sandoval wrote that the play provides a real look at racism in America, especially in how racism persists even past the abolition of slavery. The play attempts to uncover current racism and microaggressions through the lens of slavery. Aisha Harris, writing for The New York Times, said the play “bluntly confronts the lingering traumas of slavery on black Americans." Through the reoccurring theme of psychoanalysis, Jeremy O. Harris examines how slavery still impacts both the mental states, and the relationships, of black people in the present.
By staging a conversation between slavery and the present, the play uses the theme of time and history to depict how the trauma of slavery persists. As Tonya Pinkins writes, racism does not have a safe word in the play, and throughout the narrative, white characters are forced to recognize their historical and social locations in relation to their partners. The play dwells on the impact of black erasure in interracial relationships. Throughout the narrative, the white partners are incapable of recognizing, or naming, their partners race, rather it is because of guilt, or because they get defensive. By placing sex and racial dynamics in juxtaposition through the Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, the play makes whiteness, and white privilege, hyper visible in interracial relationships.Soraya Nadia McDonald points out that the play works to uncover racial innocence. Racial innocence is the concept that white people are innocent of race, and therefore they are racially neutral. By placing the white characters in the position of the master, the mistress, or the indentured servant, the play makes whiteness visible to the white characters.
Author Jeremy O. Harris has said that he wrote Slave Play during his first year at the Yale School of Drama, from which he graduated in 2019. In October 2017, a production of Slave Play was presented at the Yale School of Drama as part of the annual Langston Hughes Festival.
The play was announced for the 2018-2019 season of the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) and was taken into the development program of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Later that month, Robert O'Hara who had known Harris since his brief studies at De Paul University and was one of his teachers at Yale, was announced as director. At the end of July 2018, the first public reading of the work was held at the conference.
Previews of the production at NYTW, under the patronage of the production company Seaview Productions, began on November 19, 2018. Due to high demand, the duration of the show's run was extended before the official December 9 premiere, with the final performance being postponed from the original closing date of December 30, 2018, to January 13, 2019. Over the next two weeks, tickets for all performances sold out.
On September 18, 2019, the play ran and hosted a Broadway Blackout night where the audience consisted of only black identified artists, writers, or students. The play began its Broadway run at the John Golden Theatre in October 2019. The play opened its 17-week limited Broadway engagement on October 6, 2019, and closed as scheduled on January 19, 2020. Harris and his team promised that 10,000 tickets would be sold at $39 in an effort to diversify the crowd.
In June 2020, the producers and creative team of Slave Play made a donation of $10,000 to the National Bailout Fund and released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter.
In September 2021, it was announced that a new engagement of the play will run at the August Wilson Theatre from November 23, 2021, to January 23, 2022, with plans to then transfer to Los Angeles. Most of the cast is slated to return, with the exception of Joaquina Kalukango, due to a prior commitment to the pre-Broadway run of Paradise Square; she will be replaced by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, who originated the role of Kaneisha at the Yale School of Drama. The producers said they intended to repeat their previous efforts to sell 10,000 tickets for $39 each.
Roles and principal casts
Critical reception of Slave Play has been polarized. Due to themes revolving around sexuality and slavery, reviewers have either defended the play or criticized it. In particular, Harris believes that making a play palatable would be buying into respectability politics, and reviewers such as Tim Teeman and Soraya Nadia McDonald have noted how Slave Play's explicit content is utilized to critique racism in the United States.
There have been petitions to shut down Slave Play because of its themes. In particular, audience members and writers have criticized the play for its treatment of black women characters, and voicing that it disrespects the violent history of rape in chattel slavery. In 2018, a petition titled "Shutdown Slave Play" was started, with the petitioner describing the play as traumatizing and exploitative of human atrocities. Critic Elisabeth Vincentelli noted the similarities between the themes and style of Slave Play and those of the plays An Octoroon (2014) and Underground Railroad Game (2016).
Despite the controversy, many reviewers have met the play with acclaim. Peter Marks describes the play as funny and scalding, while Sara Holden wrote that Harris manages to make every character an archetype while at the same giving them depth. Positive reviews of the play herald Slave Play as both confronting racism and unpacking the nuances of interracial relationships, and cite it as comedic and entertaining. Aisha Harris wrote about the experience of seeing Slave Play as a black woman, stating that the uncomfortable narrative of the play allows for productive thought.
Other reviewers have reviewed the play negatively. Thom Geier reviewed the play as intentionally designed to provoke, and calls the play uneven. Juan Michael Porter II, a black theater writer, reviewed the play as consisting of oversimplified confessions meant to titillate the audience.
Awards and nominations
Original Off-Broadway production
Original Broadway production
- ^Megarry, Daniel. “Jeremy O. Harris.” Gay Times (09506101), Mar. 2019, pp. 32–35.
- ^ abcdeGeier, Thom (December 9, 2018). "'Slave Play' Theater Review: A Twisty Play That's One Giant Trigger Warning". The Wrap. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abcdeLapacazo Sandoval, Contributing Writer. "'Slave Play' by Jeremy O. Harris a Real Look at Racism in America —Opening on Broadway, Oc-Tober 6." Los Angeles Sentinel (CA), October 9, 2019.
- ^Daniels, Karu F. (January 7, 2019). "Rising Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Addresses Backlash Over Controversial Slave Play". The Root. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abCuby, Michael (March 8, 2019). "For Jeremy O. Harris, Playwriting Is Just the Beginning". them. Condé Nast. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abGans, Andrew (April 3, 2019). "Nominations for 34th Annual Lucille Lortel Awards Announced; Carmen Jones and Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future Lead the Pack". Playbill. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abFierberg, Ruthie (July 2, 2019). "Tootsie, Hadestown, and The Ferryman Lead 2019 Drama Desk Award Winners". Playbill. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abcdPINKINS, TONYA. “Racism Doesn’t Have a Safe Word.” American Theatre, vol. 36, no. 6, July 2019, pp. 40–41.
- ^Harris, Jeremy O. "Slave Play." American Theatre, no. 6, 2019, p. 39-67.
- ^ abcdefgTeeman, Tim (September 12, 2018). "What Makes Jeremy O. Harris' 'Slave Play' Such a Powerful Play About Racism". The Daily Beast. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^Harris, Jeremy O. "Slave Play." American Theatre, no. 6, 2019, p. 42-50
- ^ abcdefghiHarris, Jeremy O. "Slave Play." American Theatre, no. 6, 2019, p. 42-50
- ^ abcdeHoldren, Sara (December 10, 2018). "Theater Review: Slave Play Blends the Terrifying and the Tantalizing". Vulture. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abcdeMcDonald, Soraya Nadia (December 14, 2018). "The subversive 'Slave Play' peels back the veneer of racial innocence in Northern whites". The Undefeated. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abcdefghijHarris, Jeremy O. "Slave Play." American Theatre, no. 6, 2019, p. 50-64
- ^ abHarris, Jeremy O. "Slave Play." American Theatre, no. 6, 2019, p. 64-67
- ^Jung, E. Alex (March 6, 2019). "How to Fuck With White Supremacy". Vulture. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^ abcdHarris, Aisha (October 7, 2019). "What It's Like to See 'Slave Play' as a Black Person". The New York Times.
- ^Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence.
- ^Murphy, Tim (August 19, 2019). "These Boundary-Pushing Playwrights Talk Theater, Creative Activism, and Turning Trauma Into High Art". Departures (magazine). Time Inc. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
- ^Kafadar, Eren (October 27, 2017). "Langston Hughes Festival: Giving Voice to New Playwrights". Yale Daily News. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
- ^"Friday, October 27, 2017". Yale Calendar of Events. Yale University. October 27, 2017. Retrieved October 2, 2019.
- ^Clement, Olivia (April 4, 2018). "New York Theatre Workshop Unveils 2018–2019 Season". Playbill. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
- ^Cox, Gordon (April 17, 2018). "Beth Henley, J.T. Rogers and Sarah DeLappe Set for 2018 O'Neill Playwrights Conference". Variety. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
- ^Goldberg, Wendy C."national playwrights conference — NPC '18". Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
- ^Clement, Olivia (April 27, 2018). "Robert O'Hara Will Direct World Premiere of Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play". Playbill. Retrieved October 2, 2019.
- ^Simpson, Janice C. (July 16, 2019). "In Conversation With Jeremy O. Harris and Robert O'Hara on Slave Play". Broadway Direct. Nederlander Organization. Retrieved October 10, 2019.
- ^"Jeremy O. Harris Talks New York Theatre Workshop's "Slave Play"". BUILD Series. YouTube. December 6, 2018. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- ^"One year ago today, SLAVE PLAY by Jeremy O. Harris (NPC '18) had its first public reading on our campus". Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Twitter. July 25, 2019. Retrieved October 2, 2019.
- ^McNerney, Pem (July 31, 2019). "From Baked Goods to Broadway Productions: Shoreline Trio Tackles One of the Hottest Plays of the Season". Zip06. Shore Publishing. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- ^Clement, Olivia (December 7, 2018). "Slave Play Extends Another 2 Weeks at NYTW". Playbill. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- ^Harris, Jeremy O. (December 21, 2018). "The @nytimes is making me love @Mr_NaveenKumar even more than I did last month with this beautiful #tbt. Slave Play sold out but get a @vineyardtheatre MEMBERSHIP to guarantee a "Daddy" ticket!". Twitter. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- ^Peitzman, Louis (December 21, 2018). "The Best Plays And Musicals Of 2018". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
- ^Smith, Kyle (September 18, 2019). "'Broadway Blackout'". National Review. Retrieved November 5, 2019.
- ^Riedel, Michael. "Hot Ticket A Captive Audience? Downtown's Provocative 'Slave Play' Is Proving a Hard Sell on B'way." New York Post (New York, NY), 2019.
- ^ abLapacazo Sandoval. "'Slave Play' by Jeremy O. Harris a Real Look at Racism in America —Opening on Broadway, October 6.” Los Angeles Sentinel (CA), October 9, 2019.
- ^Wetmore, Brendan (January 21, 2020). "'Slave Play' Changed Broadway's Accessibility Forever". Paper. Retrieved June 5, 2020.
- ^Fierberg, Ruthie (October 30, 2019). "Why Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play Is Inextricably Linked to Rihanna: The playwright talks about Rihanna's influence on the Broadway play, texting in the theatre, the price of theatre tickets, and more". Playbill.
- ^Evans, Greg (June 4, 2020). "'Slave Play' Team Pledges $10K To National Bailout Fund, Challenges Broadway Community". Deadline. Retrieved June 5, 2020.
- ^Paulson, Michael (September 27, 2021). "'Slave Play' Was Shut Out at the Tonys. But It's Coming Back to Broadway". The New York Times. Retrieved September 27, 2021.
- ^ abStreet, Mikelle. "No Intermission." Out, vol. 27, no. 4, Nov. 2018, pp. 80–83.
- ^ abcB, Ashley. "Shutdown Slave Play". change.org.
- ^Vincentelli, Elisabeth (December 15, 2018). "I have seen it. And i have also seen the plays it rips off, namely An Octoroon and Underground Railroad Game". Twitter. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- ^Vincentelli, Elisabeth (December 17, 2018). "I'll rephrase: the play covers very similar thematic and aesthetic grounds the earlier ones did, just not as imaginatively or skillfully". Twitter. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- ^ abMarks, Peter (October 6, 2019). "'Slave Play' Is a Funny, Scalding, Walk along the Boundary between Black and White in America". The Washington Post.
- ^Porter II, Juan Michael (October 15, 2019). "Despite the Hype, I Hated 'Slave Play' [Op-Ed]". COLORLINES.
- ^Andy Lefkowitz. "Hadestown Leads Winners of 2019 Outer Critics' Circle Awards". Broadwaybuzz.com. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
- ^Libbey, Peter (October 15, 2020). "Full List of the 2020 Tony Award Nominees". NYTimes.com. Retrieved October 18, 2020.
- ^"Drama League Award nominees 2020". dramaleague.org. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
- ^Caitlin Huston (May 11, 2020). "Outer Critics Circle names 2019-2020 honorees". Broadway News. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
- ^"The Nominations for the 31st Annual GLAAD Awards". glaad.com. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
Play wikipedia slave
Claire Warden / Intimacy & Fight Director
Claire is an intimacy director, fight director, teacher and actress with over twenty years experience in theatre, TV and film across America and the UK. Claire is an intimacy director and the Intimacy Director Liaison with Intimacy Directors International and a founding member of Theatrical Intimacy (UK), and is co-leading the intimacy direction movement across America and Great Britain. She has intimacy di-rected and consulted on numerous stage and screen productions across the country and is the Intimacy Consultant and Director at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She has delivered workshops, presentations and panels at Julliard, Yale, NYU, Cambridge Universi-ty (UK), the O’Neill Theatre Center, HB Studios, UConn, Northeastern University, Sonoma State and for conferences and theatre communi-ties on both sides of the Atlantic. She is also part of the teaching team of Intimacy Directors International, training the next generation of Intimacy Directors. She is a faculty member of Shakespeare and Company, MA as fight and text teacher as well as a freelance choreographer and acting coach.
Her movement training and extensive background in acting is coupled with her broad experience in working with directors and actors of all levels and backgrounds across the UK and America. Her focus, joy and purpose is empowering those she works with to achieve their full creative potential. She is deeply committed to serving the ensemble, advocacy for actors and supporting artists in their creative process.
Slave Play author Jeremy O Harris on the future of theatre
This week, Gris talks to the brilliant 30-year-old playwright Jeremy O Harris about his Broadway sensation Slave Play and his autobiographical "Daddy". This is an interview that will stick with you for a long time. They discuss how black art is re-packaged by white institutions, how black and white audiences respond differently to his work, and how to make theatre more accessible — both for quarantine and for younger audiences (Harris is also an executive producer on Euphoria). Plus: a special appearance from Phoebe Waller Bridge!
As always, we want to hear from you. This week, we'd love to know what gems the Netflix algorithm is hiding from us. What are you streaming that we should be watching? We'll publish your list! Fill out our short form at ft.com/culturecallout, or email us at [email protected] f you want to get social, we're on Twitter @FTCultureCall and Instagram at @griseldamurraybrown and @lilahrap.
Links and notes from the episode:
–A special gift from us to you: sign up to the FT's Coronavirus Business Update newsletter and get free access to our journalism for 30 days! https://www.ft.com/newsletter-signup/coronavirus?segmentId=0d92d58c-2c7d-178e-6aa8-81529dd53b1b
–The recipe for kuku sabzi, a delicious Persian frittata: https://youtu.be/OJFoIfzY7eI
–A great piece about Jenny Odell's How To Do Nothing: https://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-jenny-odell-interview-how-nothing-20190509-story.html
–Wesley Morris on ESPN's The Last Dance https://www.nytimes.com/article/the-last-dance-jordan.html
–(More Wesley Morris content) Still Processing dissects Tiger King: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/podcasts/still-processing-tiger-king.html
–FT review of Becoming on Netflix (paywall): https://www.ft.com/content/e46b7582-8df7-11ea-a8ec-961a33ba80aa
–Aisha Harris' review of Slave Play: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/07/opinion/slave-play-broadway.html
–Slave Play's set designer on the choice behind the onstage mirror: https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/rihanna-mirrors-and-america-processing-slave-plays-set-design
–Genre defying women that Jeremy mentioned: Aphra Behn, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks
–Jeremy's recommendation of Perfect Blue by Satochi Kon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_Blue
–Jeremy on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jeremyoharris
See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.
Transcripts are not currently available for all podcasts, view our accessibility guide.Sours: https://www.ft.com/content/d9c98226-5ee1-434d-a0e1-33022a0403e5
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Early on in the ferocious new play Slave Play, a slave woman named Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) asks her overseer if he is going beat her. The overseer, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), asks her why she would ever think a thing like that.
“Well,” says Kaneisha, her voice dripping with mingled lust and fear, “you got that whip, aintcha?”
Jim is shocked by the reminder. He doesn’t like to recognize that he is carrying a whip. He doesn’t even really know how to use it, he protests: When he tries to crack it menacingly, it hits him in the face.
Jim also doesn’t like it when Kaneisha calls him “master,” because, he says, he’s not like one of those “Big House Folk.” He’s not her owner, he reminds her; he’s just an overseer. They’re more or less on the same ground, he assures Kaneisha. “Only difference is, I, you know? I’s sorta your manager.”
But Jim is carrying the whip nonetheless, and Kaneisha isn’t. And over the course of Slave Play’s two-hour run, as Jim and Kaneisha’s sadomasochistic sexual relationship unfolds, andas the rug is pulled out from under the audience again and again, it is never quite possible to forget that Jim is the one with the whip.
And by extension, so are the white people in the audience.
The joyously daring Slave Play comes from the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, a rising young star who’s still finishing up his term at the Yale School of Drama. “Everyone who’s watching Slave Play is fully a part of a system that is consuming and profiting off of black bodies and black identity,” Harris told the New York Times earlier this year. “The play does not allow you to escape that fact” — especially not under Robert O’Hara’s pointed direction in the current production at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Jim and Kaneisha perform one of three mixed-race pas de deux that we see during the first of Slave Play’s three acts. There’s also Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones): She’s a white plantation mistress; he’s a biracial house slave; she yearns to penetrate him. And there’s Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood). Dustin’s a white indentured laborer; Gary’s the black slave who oversees his work; Dustin licks Gary’s boots until he comes.
The three couples intertwine in a series of violent intimacies, with the white partners lingering over apparently anachronistic artifacts of black culture (Jim leers at Kaneisha as she twerks to Rihanna; Alana orders Phillip to play R. Kelly for her on the violin), and the black partners alternately thrilled and repelled.
“I can touch wherever I please, with whatever I please,” says white Dustin.
“And I can say whatever I want! However I want!” says black Gary.
“Guess those be the powers our races have bestowed on us,” Dustin replies.
At a certain point, it all starts to feel like what an academic would call an erotics of power, a twisty, kinky investigation of how race and desire intertwine in the deepest and darkest parts of our minds. Because after all, everything is about sex, except for sex, which is about power.
And then act one ends, the sex stops, and things get really wild.
If you plan on seeing Slave Play, I’d stop reading here. Just know that what happens next is so ballsy and surprising and fun that you’ll want to sit up and cheer for it, except that it’s also incredibly uncomfortable, so you can’t. Don’t seek out spoilers beforehand; just go and let the show wash over you.
If you’ve already seen Slave Play, or you’re not going to see it and you just want to know what happens, let’s keep going.
As Jim and Kaneisha’s coupling nears its climax, she begins to beg Jim to call her a “nasty negress,” to threaten to whip her. And Jim, appalled, produces a British accent out of nowhere and says, meekly, “Starbucks?”
That’s when it becomes clear that we aren’t actually in the antebellum south. We’re in 2018, the three couples we’ve been watching are in couples therapy, and Starbucks is their safe word.
Specifically, they’re in Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, a “RADICAL therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure,” explain Teá and Patricia, the chipper therapists who form the play’s fourth partnership. And slowly, the double meaning in Slave Play’s title emerges.
“So, like, are you saying that my — um — The reason I can’t get it up. The reason I don’t come is because of — just like, ‘racism?’” asks Phillip, doing air quotes.
Philip is skeptical because he sees himself as unraced — “Just a hot guy who’s not exactly black or white” — and much of what ensues is in the spirit of proving that such an identity is impossible to hold in America. The work of Slave Play is to return race to conversations from which it has been excised, while the characters object constantly.
Alana repeats, “It wasn’t racial!” like a mantra. Dustin defensively insists that he is not white, while Gary can’t see him as anything else. Jim keeps saying that Kaneisha is his queen, and that he can’t understand why she is bringing race into their relationship. For the white characters, race is something to be denied and ignored; for the black characters, race is a historical trauma that is profoundly embedded in their psyches.
The uniformly strong cast is astonishingly vulnerable as their characters break each other down, slipping in and out of fantasies and brutally intimate arguments. “You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all,” Harris’s script instructs, and the cast obeys his directions to the letter.
So does Clint Ramos’s unforgiving set design. A mirror looms at the back of the stage, and in Jiyoun Chang’s murky lighting, the audience is always partially visible, so we can always see our own avid faces eating up the spectacle in front of us. Periodically the house lights flicker fully on, leaving the audience as exposed as the characters onstage.
This is a demanding play, and one of the things that it demands is the audience’s discomfort. But that discomfort is productive — and in the end, it brings its own satisfactions. It creates a space in which the messiness and rawness of race and power and fantasy and trauma can unspool into a chaotic churn of impressions.
Slave Play posits that we live in a world in which white people are always carrying the whip. Then it jerks the whip out of their hands and wields it over them instead.