Intermission: Slave Play
To begin a new series of play reviews from the 2019–2020 Broadway season, Jeremy O. Harris turns on the heat and plunges the depths of sex, race, and trauma.
Guess what’s still closed? Broadway! Guess what else is still closed? Everything! Well, minus Georgia.
Spring has sprung, honey, and this is the time of year that I’m usually in my theatre zone. In a regular year (i.e. a year without a global pandemic), I would be binging on all of the new hits that the Great White Way has to offer the best way that I, a college student in rural Mississippi with no money and no New York experience whatsoever, could. Oh, how I long to once more jam to the leaked cast recording albums of the new musicals, absorb every article from my favorite critics, binge the bootleg recordings of shows on YouTube filmed from the last row in the balcony before they are deleted, and read the scripts of new plays. Oh, and of course, look forward to the Tony Awards in June.
Well, most of that’s not possible! Is anything possible right now except misery? Believe it or not, yes. If you are a Broadway junkie like me (NOTE: I didn’t say “Theatre Kid”, this isn’t for them.) and you want to have some sort of 2020 Theatre experience, this review begins a new series of articles where I will provide some insight on some of the newest plays. How long will this series last? Weeks? Months? Who knows! Literally, does anyone know what day it is? I have lost all sense of time.
For the record, I am discussing the scripts of plays (not musicals) that arrived in the now-capped 2019–2020 Broadway season. These are the texts that have been published for all to read, so if I ignite a curious flame within my reader to seek out the books of these shows, keep in mind they are available via online retailers! Sort of like watching POV’s of rollercoasters, it won’t be the full experience by any means but it’s something.
Enough yapping. I begin my Intermission series by examining one of the most exciting plays of the season, Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris. If you are bored out of your skull this quarantine and are seeking some carnal and pyscho-social stimulation while shacked up, how does a day of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy sound?
Yes, you read right.
Slave Play opens in the Civil-War era MacGregor Plantation in Virginia. In the first act, we are given three vignettes involving: a black female slave (Kaneisha), and a white male overseer (Jim); a black male slave (Phillip), and a white mistress (Alana); a black male slave (Gary) and a white male hired hand (Dustin). Each take place in a different part of the grounds of the home, each progress into a period of tension between the two, and each conclude with a wild sex act accompanied by contemporary music, such as the black female slave grinding on her overseer to “Work” by Rhianna.
Just before the curtains draw to launch act two, we discover that this was all an act. The next portion of the play puts all six characters in a meeting room in the twenty-first century. This is where we learn about Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, led by two psychologists named Tea and Patricia. It is day four of therapy for three interracial couples. Moving forward, each member voices their experience. There is a mix of shame, awkwardness, fulfillment, stubbornness, and curiosity among the participants. This voicing leads to uncomfortable shouting matches, confrontations, and walking out. All of this under the skillful moderation of the two scientists and their complex research.
What seems like a twisted take on sexual play turns into an intense discussion of sexuality and race; what the latter has to do with the inner mechanism of stimulation or lack thereof. Author Jeremy O. Harris, a scribe of multitudinous proportions, has written one of the most shocking and upsetting plays to take stage this year. The writer’s comprehension of power, intimacy, trauma, and the psychology of all three blisters through each page. I cannot imagine sitting in the crowd of the probably mostly white, middle-brow audience at the John Golden Theatre when this premiered.
Slave Play inspires introspection through disturbance. As Harris writes in the notes printed in the published edition of the script, the audience is not to feel comfortable with anything that they see on the stage. This bold effort could be a gamechanger in the same sense that Parasite rocked the film world. It is a layered and visceral character and social study that holds absolutely no punches in showing and talking about the intersection of intercourse and racism. Such excitement is arguably what is needed in this age to spice up the mainstream stage. Jeremy O. Harris has done just that, potentially opening a gate for what kinds of topics can be shown on Broadway.
The play was written and first performed at Harris’ Alma Matter, the Yale School of Drama, in October of 2017. A year later, the New York Theatre Workshop added it to it’s 2018–2019 season, opening on November 19, 2018 with a proposed closing on December 30th. However, responding to high popularity, the play was extended two more weeks and closed on January 13, 2019. The highly successful Broadway run began at the aforementioned John Golden on October 6, 2019. It ran until January 19, 2020.
Slave Play is currently available in paperback form, having been published by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. around the time the Broadway production closed this year.
Though it leaves scars and unearths many triggering moments, this play is easily one of my favorites in its sheer power and uncompromising will to go to uncomfortable depths. If there be a Tony Awards this year, God willing, it is likely that this is the show I will be rallying behind.