I first saw Slave Play Off-Broadway, long before Rihanna made headlines for texting during the show (playwright Jeremy O. Harris publicly defended her; he was the one she was texting); and shortly before it became a cause célèbre among theater people for having been attacked by some black people who hadn’t actually seen it.
Recently, the New York Times put on its front page an account of the show’s “Black Out,” a night reserved for an all-black audience, an account that casually gave away the play’s big reveal.
Yet even when I attended a pre-opening performance at New York Theatre Workshop last December, there had already been plenty of buzz and hype, not at that point so much about this first produced play by Harris as about the playwright himself, who was then just 29 and still a student at the Yale School of Drama.
The play I saw that night felt to me like the work of a novice playwright – promising, provocative, and well produced, but too derivative, too long, too full of ideas that were not fully or clearly developed. It needed work.
Others raved about it, however, and Slave Play has now opened on Broadway for a limited run, already extended. I was determined, on second viewing, to approach the play freshly, to figure out what it was that I had missed that had floored so many other theatergoers.
Much to my surprise, I liked it less this time.
Slave Play is in three acts (although the play runs more than two hours without an intermission.) In the first act, set on the MacGregor Plantation in Virginia during slavery times, we witness three over-the-top encounters: between a twerking slave and a whip-equipped overseer; between the mistress of the plantation wearing black boots beneath her hoop skirt and the house slave in vest who plays the violin for her; between a black slave and a white indentured servant, both men. Each of the encounters, presented in alternating scenes, starts off as a harsh power play and ends in sex, accompanied by various pop songs – respectively, Rihanna’s “Work,” R. Kelly’s “Ignition,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “Multi-Love.”
It would be impossible to talk about Act II without giving away what Harris initially intended to be a surprise. At this point, though, given the widespread publicity the show has received, it’s somewhat pointless to keep mum. As the three couples are simultaneously simulating sex under different spotlights on stage, the overseer suddenly calls out “Starbucks” — which we realize is the safety word. It turns out, the three modern-day interracial couples were role-playing. They were participating 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” – as the fourth interracial couple, two lesbians who are the therapists, explain. “Therapy is all about pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone so that we can tenderize the scars that have started to form,” one of the therapists, Téa (Chalia La Tour), says to her clients, now in modern clothing and sitting on folding chairs. What follows is a group therapy session, in which each of the white partners does most of the talking, the couples confront one another, and each of the black partners sooner or later has an epiphany that their relationship is warped in one way or another by racism.
The third act follows up with one of the couples after the group session – Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) – who role-played the twerking slave and the overseer. They argue about their relationship, she scoffs at his promise to listen, she explains what she’s feeling and why…and it ends with another bout of S&M role playing, except this time I think we’re meant to see what happens as hopeful.
It would be unfair to sum up Slave Play as soft-core S&M porn followed by pseudo psychological insights about race in America – unfair because it’s other things as well. Harris has an undeniable sense of theatricality, there is some sharp satire embedded in the proceedings, and he is evidently effective enough in identifying real-life undercurrents both in race relations and in couple dynamics that his play has sparked numerous conversations. But these external conversations are surely more rewarding than the ones in the play.
Part of the problem is that the playwright clearly spoofs the self-important gibberish that therapists speak, but at the same time the play subjects us to a long session full of it, and implicitly asks us to take it seriously.
At one point, Téa says this:
“The black or brown subject born under the constant psychological warfare of the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist system has been stricken with disorders that have gone unrecognized because there is no racial or social lens on the psyche in our current deeply conservative practice of psychology and psychoanalysis.”
No matter how smartly this may (or may not) parse in a college textbook, this is tedious stuff on a Broadway stage. Those theatergoers drawn to the show for the promise of raunch should be cautioned that the therapy session lasts much longer.
Little has changed in the script in the transfer of Slave Play to the John Golden, but the production has gotten bigger, to accommodate a theater four times the size of the original. Lindsay Jones’s sound design is louder, Jiyoun Chang’s lighting is more intense, Clint Ramos’s set of a backdrop of mirrors is bigger, on multiple tiers, and the Southern plantation that the mirrors cleverly reflect in the back of the auditorium is more elaborately painted. Unfortunately, some of the performances have gotten bigger now too.
James Cusati-Moyer, who, as Dustin, is one-half of the gay couple, has an amusing monologue in which he objects to being considered white, and accuses his black boyfriend Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) of being whiter than he is:
“You’re the one who’s constantly bathing in every comfort gentrification has to offer in the neighborhood: ’Can’t be late for my class at barre method!’ ‘Did you know that new vintage denim store has Kombucha on tap?’ ‘I love that new bookstore up the street; it’s just nice to finally have neighbors who read!’ But I’m the ‘white’ one.”
But he plays this to the audience as such a broad vaudeville that it might as well be part of the exaggerated play-acting in Act I.
Fortunately, most of the performances remain the best thing about the production. And the one performer who was not in the original cast, Joquina Kalukango, is so heart-felt in the non minstrel-like scenes with Paul Nolan that Harris might want to put them into a sequel – hopefully a play less bloated, and more focused on developing complex characters and engaging drama.
Slave Play is on stage at the John Golden Theater (252 W 45th Street, east of 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through January 19, 2020. Tickets and details
Slave Play. Written by Jeremy O. 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, dramaturg Amauta Marston-Firmino, movement by Byron Easley, intimacy and fight director Claire Warden. Featuring Ato Blankson-Wood as Gary, James Cusati-Moyer as Dustin, Sullivan Jones as Phillip, Joaquina Kalukango as Kaneisha, Chalia La Tour as Tea, Irene Sofia Lucio as Patricia, Annie McNamara as Alana, and Paul Alexander Nolan as Jim. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.