There’s no way to write lucidly about Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris, now on Broadway after opening last season Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, without uncorking at least one major spoiler. Even pointing out that the title is a pun threatens to give away the hardly blushing surprise that blooms about halfway through.
My solution? Offer a capsule summary of the merits and demerits of Harris’ play and let you, the reader, either skim the rest of the coverage, skip it entirely and head to the Golden Theatre, or remain comfortably at home. If your decision is to join the other ticket buyers, by the way, don’t read Morgan Parker’s program note beforehand. She spills one of the potentially shocking ingredients that Harris bakes into this hot cake — shocking, at any rate, for more naive attendees. For seasoned theatergoers, maybe it won’t shock at all.
In full disclosure, I missed Slave Play at NYTW and only learned about it — pro and con — over the ensuing months. Now that I’ve seen it, I can report that Harris is having a bold, brash say on the contemporary zeitgeist around race and racism. As his title promises, he is referring to the history (and, yes, the herstory) of American plantation slavery.
This Harris does with his own dizzying spin. Achingly aware of the endless complexities of today’s daunting racial relationships, Harris fearlessly grapples with them. He drops issues like the heavy objects they are, including the ubiquitous and unfortunately valid scourge of white supremacy.
Harris’ determination to get in everything eating at him brings to mind the youngster who blows up a balloon to see how much air it can take, only to be startled when it bursts. He knows what he wants to say about many of America’s deep-seated conditions, and at significant moments both racism and sexual compulsion are intertwined. Yet, even as he gets so many things off his chest, he doesn’t notice that he hasn’t quite found the precise right chemistry for achieving a sophisticated end to Slave Play. Too often, he leaves his audience observing juvenilia — or, extending the metaphor, observing an unusually precocious end-of-term paper on what America’s white population doesn’t understand about the Black population and what the Black population needs the white population to recognize. His conclusion — perhaps intentional, perhaps not — is that the ability of white Americans to hear, to see and to absorb the needs of black America is up in the cloudy air. It’s a fair conclusion but one, in the final analysis, awkwardly reached.
So what exactly goes on in Slave Play, for which set designer Clint Ramos provides a series of high upstage mirrors in which the audience can see itself? What playwright Harris and director Robert O’Hara want immediately understood is that the mirror is being held up to life and how each of us lives it.
The opening incident involves female slave Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), who enters and begins sweeping. Her equanimity is interrupted by a sound wave that impels her to begin a kind of twerk. (Lindsay Jones is the helpful sound and original music designer; Dede Ayite is the costume designer; Jiyoun Chang is the busy lighting designer.)
Kaneisha is interrupted by a white field supervisor, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan). He wields a whip, but he’s too distracted and agitated by Kaneish’s swaying booty. What follows, not unpredictably, is a slow, staccato plantation pas de deux, finishing with a coupling that the audience long sees coming. (A strip of projected plantation facade reflected in the upstage mirrors lends a sense of time and place.)
Kaneisha and Jim disappear through mirrored doors. From others emerge plantation daughter Alana (Annie McNamara), who’s dallying round a four-poster, and dapper house slave Phillip (Sullivan Jones), whom she coaxes to play hot gospel on his violin so she can seduce him with the aid of (spoiler alert 1) a black dildo. She puts it to expected use.
Their vanishing while dildo-ing brings out Black house slave Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and white house slave Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), who engage in a totally anticipated sex act that concludes in an orgasmic spree of (spoiler alert 2) boot-licking. (Why do Harris and O’Hara go tasteful here when the implied action is fellatio?)
Harris’ three opening sketches are partly send-ups of stereotypical Black-white plantation shenanigans. As such they’re funny, though the humor diminishes during the latter two because Harris takes so long to get to his point: to poke at the blurry relationships between oppressors and oppressed.
But that’s when Harris swings into what he’s really getting at. Out of the blue, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) enter on an upper level to stop the sex-propelled doings. They’re partners, apparently from Yale University and Smith College, and they have developed a five-day rehabilitation course called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. Kaneisha, Jim, Alana, Phillip, Gary and Justin (spoiler alert 3) have just participated in the fourth-day requirement. They’ve imagined themselves, costumes and all, in the pre-Civil War South in order to get at the roots of their own mixed-relationship dystopia, to get at the cause of some of their flagging sexual attractions. (Bravo to all the actors for stylishly committed performing.)
So Harris has plunged spectators into a group-therapy spoof without realizing that group-therapy spoofs are almost as old as the antebellum South itself. Harris even goes for a laugh with the old here’s-the-Kleenex-box gesture. With this turn in the proceedings, the playwright Teá and Patricia such fatuous jargon spouters that he undercuts the gravity of the problems faced by each racially mixed pair of characters. (For similar problems, consult Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day, Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor and/or Neil LaBute’s Appomattox.)
When Harris finishes attempting to fuse the serious contexts of the three troubled couples with the subliminally and similarly conflicted Teá and Patricia, he provides a coda in which Kaneisha and Jim, now in their bedroom, try to accomplish a genuine connection as she insists that the “virus” she caught from him is incurable. He’ll have none of it — precisely the underlying incompatibility she maintains is at the heart of their estrangement. Hoping to leave a glimmer of hope for Kaneisha and Jim hope, Harris then ends his Slave Play, but it insufficiently vitiates his conviction that we’re all enslaved to conflicting Black vs. white beliefs. Harris is free to write as he wishes about the very real racial tensions in America, but the play remains so scattershot that his many points, and the fireworks that generate, remain unhappily in chains.