REVIEW: Confronting Race, Gender, Sex, and History in “Slave Play” on Broadway
I have often wondered what it would look like for America to grapple, in earnest, with its racist past and present. What would it feel like for there to be a collective acknowledgement and a national therapy of recognition and responsibility; dare I say, even a reconciliation?
It may not be the answer, but “Slave Play”, which opened Sunday night at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, offers an answer—a noble start.
A start because it is a play that boldly dares to suggest an idea, a vision of what that confrontation might look and feel like—something I have never seen dramatized before—and one that hails from a specificity of perspective that rocks the complacency of audiences with the force of its manifold truths.
A start because, hey, when was the last time you witnessed something as fanciful and alarming as “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” role play among interracial couples—and its group session aftermath—on stage, anywhere?
In his Broadway debut, playwright Jeremy O. Harris fluently expresses the bounty of his imagination with a disregard—whether unintentional or as ideology—for the ossified leer of the white theatrical gaze. Make no mistake, “Slave Play” is a play for everybody, but it is also a play that strikes certain segments of its audience—and its critics—in ways more profound, and perhaps even triggering, than most works of theatre—particularly in a commercial setting.
The adjective “provocative” has been thrown around a lot in connection to this play (I am guilty of using it myself), but on reflection, what is “provocative” is that this play should come to be seen as provocative in the first place. Only after decades, nay centuries, of that stubborn American penchant for refusing to acknowledge and wrestle with the past could a play that does be seen as “provocative”.
Only a nation in deep denial of its racist origins that is characterized by a society in the grip of white supremacy could be scandalized by white master-black slave role play demonstrated on a stage, when it is in the very air we breathe, the media we consume, and the lives we live every day. And, sure, there is a big black dildo, simulated sex, the suggestion of rape, and lots of “adult” language.
Seeing through all that, refusing a Puritanical lens, “Slave Play” is an artful indictment of our country and our culture complete with a wall of mirrors reflecting back the faces of its audience—a trenchant satire of white fragility, identity politics, racism, psychotherapy, and a certain brand of its crunchy practitioners, at once hysterically funny and hauntingly frightening.
Structured as three acts presented in an intermission-less two hours, the first third of the play consists of three vignettes of interracial couples in sexual displays of dominance and subservience performed while dressed in antebellum costume and attempting, through uneven accents and inconsistent vernacular, to commit to the period.
Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), a black slave, receives a talking to from Mr. Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), her white overseer. Alana (Annie McNamara), the lady of the plantation, summons Philip (Sullivan Jones), a mulatto house slave, to her boudoir so he can play his fiddle. And Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), a white indentured servant, spars with Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a slave deputized as his overseer in the fields. All three scenarios crescendo to near-explicit sexual acts.
Reflected in that mirror wall on stage is a digital painting of the McGregor Plantation affixed to the front of the mezzanine (set design by Clint Ramos). Cleverly, the audience is looking forward, but cannot escape the past, and that is the central metaphor at work. Unlike our daily propensities to look away, the omnipresent McGregor Plantation offers no such relief. We cannot casually evade its presence. Nor should we want to. Nor can we. The lack of an intermission is intentional. We must sit and stew in that which is uncomfortable.
The scenes of “slave play”—an imagined form of interracial sexual fantasy role-play—are cut short when Jim calls the safe word: “Starbucks”, revealing the leaders of a couples retreat: Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Luco), who usher the hapless couples into a group session as part of their experimental study designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure, a variant of anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure).
This second scene—the longest and finest in the play—offers a masterful demonstration of racial dynamics among its sharply rendered characters as Mr. Harris satirizes contemporary conventions of racial discourse about privilege and identity (the words “hear”, “space”, and “process” drop with hilarious pace) while vividly demonstrating their very operation and diving deep into an exploration of the relationships of the participants.
Alana, a white woman, can’t stop talking. Philip, who is a light skinned black man, sees himself as post-racial and unable to access his own racial trauma. Kaneisha, a black woman, is paralyzed by alexithymia, the inability to describe your own feelings. Jim, a white British man, calls the whole project insane and dismisses himself, while Gary, who is black, and Dustin, who is “not white” but clearly passes for white, spar over the complexity of that dynamic.
Every actor in this ensemble excels under the direction of Robert O’Hara. Thankfully all but one hail from the acclaimed Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) last fall (Ms. Kalukango makes a terrific, and seamless, addition).
In the months since, their performances have become richer and more nuanced, as is often the case, and the play itself amazingly lands a stronger punch in a Broadway house nearly four times the size of NYTW’s East Village digs. That’s because Mr. O’Hara elicits appropriately broader performances from his cast, most notably by Mr. Cusati-Moyer, who nearly steals the play in a scene-two breakdown over his perceived whiteness.
“Slave Play” is not an easy play to receive, dissect, and process (a favorite buzzword of Teá and Patricia’s), but it is impossible not to emerge from the theatre, head-spinning, primed to do just that following the third, final, and explosively graphic scene set in Kaneisha and Jim’s hotel room (no spoilers here).
As a white, cis, gay man in my early 30s, my perception of this play—and, well, everything I see—is shaped and limited by the facts of my demography, but that is also the case for every theatregoer.
I have no doubt that black audiences of every variant will experience “Slave Play” in ways different from me—that there are truths coiled in its text and performance to which I am blind or else unaffected, and others that glare to me, unsettle me, shake me, and change me. That is the blessing of art, and live theatre—as an irreducibly experiential medium—in particular.
I also know that Mr. Harris, Mr. O’Hara, and their stunning ensemble of performers, designers, and collaborators have graced Broadway with a new work that is unapologetically what it is: thoughtfully written, constructed, and executed; thought-provoking, relevant, and a herald of what can be.
A play that navigates the inescapability of the past and our collective challenge in confronting it productively in the present in a way that gives voice to the experiences of people of color and produces a better future. A play that sparks a raw and necessary conversation.
An indictment. An answer. A start.
And, unfortunately, a limited engagement. So see it to join that conversation, or else regret it.
Bottom Line: following a sold-out run downtown, Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” is now on Broadway. At once hysterical and alarming, this trenchant satire of white fragility, identity politics, racism, psychotherapy, and a certain brand of its crunchy practitioners is a conversation piece to top them all. Thoughtfully written, constructed, and executed; thought-provoking, relevant, and a herald of what can be, “Slave Play” is a must-see of the season.
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: two hours (no intermission)
Opening Night: October 6, 2019
Final Performance: January 19, 2020