Review: Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy” is a Masterpiece of Melodrama

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Late last year New York Theatre Workshop premiered Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play and now in a miraculous feat for a newcomer, he has a second play this season, “Daddy” produced by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre. Harris’s work is gripping, modern, and powerfully political. Here, as in Slave Play, he deals with themes of race and sexuality in a hauntingly trenchant manner.

“Daddy”: A Melodrama explores the relationship between Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young gay black artist, and Andre (Alan Cumming), an older, white, wealthy art collector. Their relationship is not about labels, but for all intents and purposes, Andre is Franklin’s sugar daddy — emphasis on the daddy part. Early in their relationship, they both expresses some kinky desires, and within the first scene Franklin is calling Andre “daddy.” They both seem rather into it. Franklin moves in to Andre’s Bel Air estate and sets up an art studio to prepare for his upcoming show.

Franklin’s friends, Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), have conflicted feelings: Max is judgmental but jealous, Bellamy, a sugar baby herself, is supportive. His gallerist, Alessia (Hari Nef) raises her eyebrows but loves how the newfound financial security is helping his work. It is the arrival and opinions of Franklin’s mother (Chalayne Woodard) that really creates a conflict of, well, melodramatic proportion.

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Harris put “daddy” in quotation marks subtitles the play “a melodrama,” an initial clue into the self-awareness and experimental genre of the piece. The play is a clear progeny of theatrical greats. There are traces of Ruhl’s surrealism in Melancholy Play, Shakespeare’s vicious family dynamics in Titus Andronicus, Jenkins’s racial critique of nineteenth-century American melodrama in An Octoroon, Kushner’s magical realism in Angels in America, Beckett’s abusrdist fantasies in Endgame, Zimmerman’s symbolism in Metamorphoses, and Karam’s biting naturalism in The Humans, to name a few.

Harris, who states he was influenced by George Michael, Nicki Minaj, and Shirley Caesar, draws from all these distinct styles and skillfully combines them in ways that are often more effective than they have ever been before. The play begins in a very real space but it slowly spirals into something more nightmarish, psychological, symbolic. The shifts are not jarring at all, we are coasted along in ways that equally terrifying and beautiful.

The play is three acts and runs almost three hours, but in this time Harris manages to blur genre and tell a nuanced, complicated story about love, family, race, class, relationships, sex, queerness, kink, art, and trauma. It takes a prodigy like Harris to imagine such a modern story within the world of stage melodrama. “Daddy” is quite possibly the most intersectional story I have ever seen onstage, not to mention its equally diverse cast, which includes six people of color, a trans woman (Hari Nef), and a non-binary actor (Tommy Dorfman).

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The superbly talented cast is part of what makes this play work so well. The three supporting actors, Nef, Dorfman, and Kim, are all comically vapid and at times unexpectedly profound. Veteran performer Alan Cumming as our titular daddy manages to be both the stereotypical white sugar daddy who collects art (but has all the wrong opinions about it) and something much more flawed and complex. Cumming captures all the various passions of Andre with surprising finesse.

Charlayne Woodard’s fierce mother character, Zora, is his total antithesis. She is an intense Baptist, an overbearing single parent, does not understand art, is very protective of her son. She does not approve of the relationship,believing not only that Andre is godless, but that he fundamentally cannot understand the feeling of blackness. Whether it be in her religious diatribes or her stirring monologues on race, Woodard gives a remarkably commanding performance.

Ronald Peet as our psychologically damaged artist is nothing short of extraordinary. He expertly portrays Franklin, a character who bounces from woke lectures, to bursts of artistic creativity, to a desire for independence, and to sucking his thumb and getting spanked. Peet creates a character that is multifaceted, captivating, and deeply traumatized — and he does it all while wearing basically nothing but a black speedo.

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Speaking of speedos, half the stage is taken up by an actual swimming pool, which is used for a wide variety of things, from literal swimming to more symbolic and surreal purposes, all of which prove the genius of both Harris and his director, Danya Taymor. In case you are wondering about the water: yes, know that if you are in the first row you will get wet, but thankfully towels are provided for those in the “splash zone.”

The set, designed by Matt Saunders, is a play on David Hockney’s “Portrait of An Artist (Pool with Two Figures).” The costumes by Montana Levi Blanco are Bel Air chic and reveal important arcs for the characters. The lighting design by Isabella Byrd is a never-ending sequence of subtle transitions which ease the audience along the journey between the real the surreal. Lee Kinney, the sound designer, uses various speakers throughout the space to create uncanny effects that bring us into Franklin’s warped state of mind. In every element, the design is impeccable.

Like the nineteenth-century melodrama it builds on, the piece is heavily infused with music. It features a gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) that variously symbolized a Greek chorus, the Three Fates, the presence of religion, and voices of Franklin’s psyche. The play’s rich sonic world was made up of an original score (by Lee Kinney), original vocal music (by Darius Smith and Brett Macias), and surprising — not to mention hilarious — infusions of some already-existing songs.

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The writing, acting, direction, design, and music are all flawless and combined they create a work that is nothing short of a masterpiece: in short, “Daddy” is the greatest play of the decade. It will no doubt be studied by students for generations and will probably be anthologized as one of the great works of the 21st century.

“Daddy” is a theatrical achievement of the highest degree; a bold, experimental, political, and important work of theater that will not soon be forgotten. Go see it, and while you’re at it, make you sure you go see anything that this playwright extraordinaire writes; you won’t regret it. You will leave “Daddy” deeply moved and it will teach you a great deal not only about race and relationships, but about theater as an art form. It is a perfect example of the power of theater and is the exact embodiment of the type of art we should be making right now.

“Daddy” opens at the Pershing Square Signature Center on March 5th, 2019. The play contains nudity and graphic sexual content.

Written by

Theater Critic and Queer Blogger. Vassar College alum, currently working toward a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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