After a much-heralded double off-Broadway debut, Jeremy O. Harris has rightfully become the talk of the town. It is perfectly logical, then, that the limited engagement Broadway run of “Slave Play” at the Golden Theatre is the most anticipated show of the season. Trust the rumors and believe the hype because Harris’s “Slave Play” is as groundbreaking, radical, and genius as you’ve heard; it is unmissable.
The first word that comes to mind when thinking about “Slave Play” is confrontational. Harris, “Slave Play,” the superb direction of Robert O’Hara, and the extraordinarily devoted cast, all force us to confront ourselves and our beliefs in many ways. The most obvious form of this appears quite immediately when you walk in the theater and are see Chris Ramos’s set, a large mirror which reflects not only an image of a Virginia plantation, but also the entire audience.
A mirror that forces the audience to look at itself may not be new — the original production of “Cabaret” made this Brechtian scenic gesture famous — but here is is used in such a searing way that it has newfound intensity. At all times we are aware that we are watching something, and the actors are aware that they are performing. Harris has found a flawless way of translating Brecht’s epic theater, often thought of as overly didactic and only still existing in collegiate settings, to Broadway, and thank god, because audiences are certainly in need of some education.
The playbill of “Slave Play” includes “A Note on Discomfort.” It reads, in part: “There’s nothing in ‘Slave Play’ that part of you doesn’t already know.” The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes, no intermission; Harris gives us no break, but makes us sit in our uncomfortability. It’s about time a playwright went out of their way to make the mostly white, rich, privileged members of Broadway audiences uncomfortable and make them grapple with things they know but choose to forget or not acknowledge.
At rise, we are given a triptych of antebellum vignettes: a slave Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), sweeps and twerks to Rihanna’s “Work” while overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) orders her around with a whip; house slave Phillip (Sullivan Jones) plays violin for Mistress Alana (Annie McNamara); white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) gets bossed around by a slave in charge of him, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood).
Each slowly transforms and becomes filled with sexual situations that are uncomfortable, violent, racialized, and kinky (the show is setting a new gold standard in the form of Claire Warden as fight and intimacy director). While Jim has sex with his slave Kaneisha, she tells him to call her a “dirty Negress.” Alana, now in a dominatrix outfit, sodomizes Phillip with a black dildo. Gary commands Dustin to lick his big, black leather boots. The name of the game is hierarchy, but not everyone is equally on board or comfortable with it.
Major spoilers ahead, but at the climax (quite literally) of the sex scenes, a safeword is called out, two therapists enter, and the scenes are stopped. Shifting gears, Teá (Chalila La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) set up a semi-circle of folding chairs for a talkback so the group can discuss how their “fantasy play” went. The couples are part of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, a study that the pair developed at Smith and Yale to address sexual frustration for black partners in interracial couples.
The pair, who themselves are a couple with some of the same problems, facilitate a discussion among the three couples, and speak with a deliciously satirical lexicon of therapist speech, including thought echoing, “I feel” statements, validating epithets (“You are heard. You are affirmed and I see you”) and lots of time for “processing.”
This is a perfect microcosm of the beauty of “Slave Play” which is always balancing incredibly difficult, nuanced discussions with humor. For a deeply serious play, it is also hilarious. As the audience, we get to laugh along, but also get an education, just as the characters do.
Alana must learn that as a white partner she is taking up too much space. Dustin must recognize that although he is “not white” he is far from “blueblack” like his partner, Gary. Jim has to understand that while he may be British, his white skin carries a painful legacy of American slavery that his wife Kaneisha cannot ignore. All three white partners must recognize the blackness of their partners, acknowledge their own whiteness and relationship to white supremacy, understand that the therapy is not about them, and most importantly, accept that they have to take a passive role and let their black partners be in charge.
This is not an easy process, and each couple has to fight unique demons. Jim in particular disagrees with the entire premise of the therapy, despite the fact that Kaneisha is clearly struggling. The third portion of the play is a duet between just the two of them; it is simultaneously one of the most powerful scenes of theater I have ever seen, and also the most difficult I’ve ever had to watch. Here and throughout, Kalukango brings her Kaneisha into some raw, emotional places to create an award-worthy performance that can only be described as gut-wrenching.
Harris effortlessly weaves race, class, nationality, gender, queerness, gentrification, marriage, monogamy, kink, racism, and trauma into every scene of “Slave Play.” The play deals with everything, does it all at once, and does so expertly; it makes intersectionality not seem like a buzzword, but an ethos, a rhetoric, a way of life, a deeply embodied form of writing.
For example, the play tackles the pathologization of black bodies in psychology with staggering nuance. Teá and Patricia’s have theorized Racialized Inhibiting Disorder, a sexual-psychological condition rooted in racial trauma. Or in the words of Phillip, “The reason I can’t get it up, the reason I don’t come, is because of, just like, racism?”
Kaneisha powerfully turns this around and rejects their diagnosis, instead arguing that we should not think about black people as having disorders, but white people as a virus that infects and inflicts harm on black bodies and minds. The “undiagnosed, undiagnosable thing” is not an obscure condition black people have, the problem is white supremacy.
It is powerful, thought-provoking realizations like this that make “Slave Play” one of the most important plays in the history of the form. Harris refuses to let us ignore race, or its intersections with a myriad of other factors and identity categories. He forces us to look at it head on, to stare at it — and ourselves — in the mirror. He makes us look at things we don’t want to see. But never is the show cruel or excessive. “Slave Play” may be the most provocative play on Broadway, but it is also the best.
The word “haunting” is often over-used by critics (myself included); in the case of “Slave Play,” I would not call the play haunting, but instead will say that this play will haunt me — and all white audience members who see it — forever. Similarly, the play is not just “timely,” it is long overdue. No one who sees “Slave Play” will ever be able to forget or ignore all that Jeremy O. Harris brings to light and teaches us, and we are all better off for it. We all have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn.