Warning: contains potential spoilers.
Jeremy O. Harris’s searingly uncompromising, disarmingly funny and often suitably uncomfortable Slave Play was a recipient of multiple awards as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s 2018/19 season and the Broadway transfer officially opened on Sunday 6th October at New York’s Golden Theatre, running until 19th January 2020.
As the audience settles into their seats they are faced with, well, themselves, as Clint Ramos’s brilliant set design features a mirror covering the entire back wall of the stage, immediately making the audience inescapably involved, complicit even, in what’s about to happen on stage. There’s no sitting back in your seat merely observing; the set, like the play itself, doesn’t allow for the comfortable distance that proscenium arch theatre generally affords the audience, we’re all there in the same space with the actors. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting similarly implicates us, with coloured house lights flooding the auditorium and bathing the audience at significant moments throughout.
The play begins with a triptych of interracial sexual encounters; a Black slave, self-described as a “nasty negress” and her abusive overseer Mr Jim; the taboo of a plantation owner’s wife being turned on by a mixed race fiddle player and thirdly, and most curiously, an apparently white male cotton picker being ordered around by his Black master.
At first we see each pair in their individual scenarios, then as the encounters intensify and become more overtly sexual, they appear side by side on stage. Initially the costumes (beautifully detailed work by Dede Ayite), speech and power dynamics suggest that this is the antebellum South, with the MacGregor Planation “big house” reflected on stage throughout the play. There are however immediately signals that all is not as it seems, including an early blast of Rihanna’s Work and the characters appearing to be putting on their personas, apparently using a voice other than their own and occasionally struggling to utter certain racist words. There’s soon a sense, as indicated by the title, that the characters are engaged in some kind of role play. That emerging realisation however doesn’t make the scenarios or language any less confronting or negate the potency of our proximity to the intimate sexual interactions. The circumstances leading to these pairings are disorientating and complex, but it’s thrillingly refreshing to see Jeremy O. Harris’s and director Robert O’Hara’s bold, audacious placement of these sexual episodes, including gay sex, centre stage on the all too often conservative and commercial Broadway.
Gradually it becomes apparent that the three couplings we’ve observed are in fact partners in the present day taking part in a bizarre sexual role play being observed by their therapists; this is ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’, or Slave Play. Much of the rest of the play takes place in a group therapy session with the three couples analysing their feelings following the role play we’ve just witnessed. The group is led by the creators of the therapy Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), not just colleagues, but an interracial couple themselves.
Among the participants are the gentrified East Harlem dwelling gay couple Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), an actor, who identifies as non-white without specifying his heritage or ethnicity, who haven’t had sex (at least with each other) for months or even years. There’s the nerd of the group Alana (Annie McNamara) who studiously takes notes and refers back to quote from them regularly throughout the session, she’s hoping to resolve her partner Phillip’s (Sullivan Jones) erectile dysfunction but seems more focused on exploring her own sexual expression. Then there’s Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) who we saw play the “nasty negress” struggling to express her feelings towards her white British partner Jim (Pail Alexander Nolan) who reluctantly played her overseer in a rape scenario involving a whip.
The therapy session itself has a role play like artifciality to it in the way the “communication sphere” is rigidly structured and facilitated by the therapists. Lucio and La Tour as the therapists have a heightened acting style, they are ‘playing the roles’ of facilitators, a professional façade which occasionally subtly breaks down when there’s some friction between the women. Jim objects to American therapy buzz words, finding the oft-repeated “process” particularly objectionable.
As each participant holds back or finds their voice within the session, its clear that with Slave Play Jeremy O. Harris has created a genius forum for an urgent, nuanced, often uneasy yet entertaining exploration of racial dynamics in relationships, taking in the fetishisation of the bodies of people of colour, unacknowledged white privilege, and so much more. A forum that feels essential at a time of emboldened white nationalism and white supremacy, including a vital reckoning with the nation’s history. The fact that themes often go undiscusded in every day life, is reflected in the therapy participants’ difficulty in vocalising their emotions and observations…until each character has their own breakthrough.
As Kaneisha is finally able to vocalise her feelings about Jim, it is particularly powerful and she delivers a spine-chilling, devastating speech about being forced to visit a plantation on a school trip as a child, being the only person of colour in her class. It’s an evocatively lyrical, nightmarish, confronting speech beautifully performed by Joaquina Kalukango. It’s visually striking to see a relatively lengthy monologue being delivered by a Black woman while a white man sits silently listening to her, not attempting to interrupt, Harris and O’Hara again presenting us with something rarely seen on the Broadway stage, and all too rarely in the real world. The dynamics of who speaks and who listens are also explored throughout therapy session scene.
Much of the play’s humour comes from James Cusati-Moyer’s portrayal of Dustin, an actor who brings the drama home with him, played with great physicality and real vibrancy without relinquishing any light and shade in his performance, delivering moments of heartbreaking nuance. Though it feels wrong to focus on any single performance as the entire ensemble is gutsy, utterly committed to their roles and riveting to watch whether they’re speaking or silent.
In a time when many major theatre productions are being filmed and beamed into cinemas, Slave Play is a production that demands to be seen live; there’s real power in being in the same room where these words are being spoken and the action is happening right there in front of you. As with his brilliant, recently staged play Daddy, Jeremy O. Harris delivers a complte theatrical experience, using every element at his disposal. He’s a fearless, skilful playwright and an urgent new voice that’s delivered an essential, unmissable work that you’ll definitely need time to “process” (sorry Jim.)
By James Kleinmann
Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play directed by Robert O’Hara is at Broadway’s Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street) running until Sunday 19th January 2020. Tickets for Slave Play are on sale now at www.slaveplaybroadway.com, www.telecharge.com, or by calling 800 447 7400.