Slave Play Review: Three Interracial Couples Try to Have Sex and Talk About It

“Slave Play,” which marks the Off-Broadway debut of playwright Jeremy O. Harris,  begins, as one would expect from the title, in a plantation in the Antebellum South. It involves three interracial couplings:
In the overseer’s quarters, a slave stops sweeping up and she starts twerking to Rihanna’s song “Work.” The overseer catches her, and, after forcing her to eat a cantaloupe on the floor, he starts having sex with her.
In her boudoir, the mistress of the Plantation calls in one of her slaves to play the violin. He starts playing Beethoven, but she insists that he play “the negro music you play for the ladies down at y’all’s cabin.” He starts playing R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” Then she starts having sex with him.
In the barn, a slave orders around a white indentured servant. Suddenly Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “Multi-Love” starts playing, and he starts having sex with him.
In these first scenes, sexy and deliberately outrageous, Harris seems heavily influenced by the in-your-face pornographic theatrics of Thomas Bradshaw (whose works include Fulfillment, and Intimacy). But 45 minutes into the play, there is an abrupt shift and the characters replace their 19th century costumes for modern ones (The anachronism of the music should have been a tip-off.) The next hour feels influenced by Robert O’Hara (Bootycandy and Barbecue) in both its big surprise, and its intellectualized discourse largely about race, and at least partially for satirical effect.
What we learn (spoiler alert) is that the three interracial couples were role-playing as part of “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.” This is the explanation given by the fourth interracial couple, who are the therapists.

What follows is discussion, debate, confrontation and apparently curative epiphanies, clearly meant to further explore issues of race and sex and gender, and drive home the central thesis of the play that all relationship and all individuals, black or white, continue to be affected by the racism that dates back centuries.

Some of what we hear is thought-provoking; there are a few laughs. But there is not as much insight or humor as the playwright seems to have intended. (Many theatergoers, though, are sure to find it just as uncomfortable as the playwright seems to want.)  And, at two hours without an intermission, it’s simply too long, and too repetitive.

The production of “Slave Play” at New York Theatre Workshop is certainly in good hands. Robert O’Hara (yes, the playwright) is the director, and the cast is first-rate…and brave. The gift that Harris gives to the performers are aria-like speeches, and they make the most of them — especially Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer portraying the gay couple.

The main feature of Clint Ramos’ set is a backdrop of mirrors cleverly reflecting the painting of an old Southern Plantation in the back of the auditorium. The mirrors also show the audience to ourselves, an obvious metaphor.

Harris has gotten a stunning amount of attention recently — awards, press profiles — for a 29-year-old playwright who is still a student at the Yale School of Drama. He’ll get more when a second play of his, “Daddy” starring Alan Cumming, opens at the Vineyard Theater in February.  Perhaps he’s gotten too much, because “Slave Play” could have benefitted from some reworking away from the limelight.


Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

Slave Play
New York Theater Workshop
Written by Jeremy Harris
Directed by Robert O’Hara. Scenic design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang, sound design by Lindsay Jones, properties by Noah Mease, movement by Byron Easley, Intimacy & Fight Director Claire Warden .Dramaturg Amauta Marston-Firmino. Dialect Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser. Stage Manager Jhanaë K-C Bonnick
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer,
Sullivan Jones, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara,
Paul Alexander Nolan, Teyonah Parris
Running time: Two hours with no intermission
Tickets: $69 to $79
Slave Play is on stage through January 13, 2019

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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