Robert O’Hara: Finding the Beauty in the Horror

My old friend -- director of Broadway's hit "Slave Play" -- tells me why theater is the space for the complicated and the uncomfortable.

Director Robert O'Hara in rehearsal for "Slave Play.: Photo: Caitlin McNaney.

I recently had the opportunity to see the Broadway directorial debut of my longtime friend Robert O’Hara. The play is Jeremy O. Harris’ extraordinary Slave Play, running through Jan. 19 at the Golden Theatre. Slave Play chronicles the blistering journey of three interracial couples as they explore the extreme depths of social identities, love, sex and relationships that are bound by the US history that defines them.

Robert and I attended undergrad together at Tufts University, where he helped me explore my love of theater. After Slave Play, Robert and I talked about how as a director (and also a playwright in his own right), he reflects back to audiences the complexities of life — how we radiate pain, how we suffer and explore, how we find humor and joy. Robert frequently directs works that focus mainly on the stories of underrepresented and marginalized voices, which is what Harris delivers in his satirical and riveting play.

I also asked Robert to share his thoughts on the presence of Black and queer narratives in the theater, how he supports the work of artists, and how he approaches telling stories that are both complicated as well as uncomfortable.

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Anthony Meyers: How has your relationship with Slave Play evolved — particularly the shift from Off-Broadway to commercial Broadway.

Robert O’Hara: There is a galvanized effort to tell a story. This play was never meant to be on Broadway — I never thought in a million years of it being on Broadway. We had the luxury of workshopping the play at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT. And Jeremy had already done a production in school. There were no huge structural changes. During the production [Off-Broadway] at New York Theatre Workshop, things changed somewhat based on what we learned from the audiences and from evolving artistic motivations. And when we were offered a Broadway run, I was interested going back to the original instincts of the work. We also adapted a new cast member.

AM: What is your perspective on the readiness of today’s theater producers and audiences to experience Black, gay and/or queer identities — in consideration of recent success of shows like Boys in the Band, Choir Boy, A Strange Loop and Ain’t No Mo?

RO: I started my career writing a Black gay slave narrative in graduate school. They weren’t ready for it. You just step into it. It was time to tell the story that I wanted to tell. I don’t care if audiences are ready. I don’t expect everyone to be ready. Queer stories are not new. There is Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin and the Greeks. There are people that aren’t or won’t be ready to experience it. But theater is the place to create works that people aren’t ready for.

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Has writing Black/gay/queer narratives changed over time for you — and across media, such as film and TV as well as theater?

RO: I think so. Our culture is changed. Black and queer folk are more present and demanding their stories be told. When I was writing, I turned to Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Baldwin, Essex Hemphill and George C Wolfe for queerness. Today, there is a wider array of writers. There is more diversity and variety in the stories, and they aren’t always centralizing trauma, whiteness or straightness. They are centralizing queerness. It’s just the everyday story of our lives. And straight people have been doing this for a long time. We’re writing about the facts of our lives.

AM: What has been your experience as a mentor — and mentee?

RO: Mentorship is about reading work and going to work and inviting artists into my space. I work with directors and playwrights regularly. Even with this Broadway run, I’ve been bringing artists into the space to learn and engage with my process. This Broadway run represents my mentorship with Harris. I encouraged him before he was at Yale. Mentoring helps the mentee as well as the mentor. For the mentor, it allows your voice to be heard in other spaces, and the legacy of your work as the mentor gets transmitted through the work of the mentee. My work also represents the voices of my mentors — like George, like Anne Bogart.

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AM: While I can think of several eternal “Robert” quotes, I’d still like to ask for your thoughts on certain mottos that I know you’ve lived by over the years. The first is “Find the beauty in the horror.”

RO: I look to something that is a very difficult topic to deal with and try to find a beautiful story inside of it. Everyone is welcome, but no one is safe. When you come into the theater, you can’t come into a space for safety. No one is keeping my Black body safe! These are uncomfortable topics, but it’s not about comfortability, it’s the fact of who I am. I don’t want to sit in a fully real space of horror, but you have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. You could present the most horrific narrative, but if you can get someone to sit inside the horror, then they can begin to find understanding through the work. Look at Slave Play. See the marquee on Broadway with the word “slave” on the sign? There is a responsibility for what it means and represents.

AM: Does that also mean comfort for the actors?

RO: Safety is important for me in terms of the perspective of the actors on stage. There are intimacy directors that will collaborate on a work and support the actors in their safety in working with uncomfortable subject matter. I know that some directors are not as open or comfortable having intimacy directors working in the space with them, but, for me, it’s sometimes about giving up some of the power [in service of the work]. Besides, intimacy or fight directors bring their own imagination to you and the project, which doesn’t lessen my own direction.

AM: Speaking of imagination, the other mantra of yours that I recall is: “I will not be limited by your imagination!”

RO: So much about the entertainment industry is when they will allow you to express your creativity. None of that has to do with being an artist. You have to reclaim your time as an artist. As an artist, I have to have a wide range of life experiences to inspire and create work. Writing about art alone is boring. And it’s not just being limited by others’ imaginations, but it’s also my own. As artists, we’re always questioning our choices. You have to be able to put the work away. You have to look away from the work. Look away, and then look back, so the perspective changes. Go to a play, watch TV or a film. And then come back to your work.

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AM: You sent me an email many years ago when I asked for your feedback on the ever-present anxiety of trying to build a life for myself while staying in touch with my art. You wrote: “Live your life. All you have is your art and your friends and family. Enjoy love, friends, family and life. Devoting too much time to the madness of being an artist can break one’s spirit and stifle their creativity.” 

RO: We are not much for the world. It’s about friends and family. It requires you to check in with your friends and family. In an everyday existence of dealing with nos, maybes and not-yets, this is vital. Waiting on variables can make you crazy — this entertainment business is a crazy experience. For example, imagine that, in 14 weeks, you’re going to make an American Idol! There’s a mentality that you’re going to be an Idol. Its draining, demeaning and demoralizing. How is this your last chance? So many actors want to quit if they don’t get that one role. Don’t be an idol. Be an artist.