Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in NYTW’s production of ‘Slave Play.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
What happens when obstacles to emotional and physical intimacy caused by and rooted in the psycho-sexual trauma of American slavery are confronted? If playwright Jeremy O. Harris is at the helm: Slave Play, a bristling, genre-crashing new work tinged with soft porn, now receiving its world premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.
In one of a myriad of erotic exchanges set in antebellum Virginia on the imagined MacGregor Plantation, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), an interracial gay couple on the rocks, ride a roller coaster of desire, power dynamics and fetishization. Their chemistry is riveting, their action a shared choreopoem of love and pain that sucker punches you so deep in the loins you may not have any air left by the time one of the two climaxes. It will also very likely forever change the way you look at your black leather boots.
There are two other couples, and their stories are also told through soul-bumping sexual trysts that live in a mash-up world of black and white, reality and fantasy, realism and farce, negro spirituals and Rihanna. Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) and Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) open the play with a scene set in the plantation fields armed with a whip and broom, respectively, followed by Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones) who romp on, across and nearly under a four-poster bed with a dildo and a fiddle (also, respectively).
The scenes pack enough slave-era satirical shock and awe to drop your mouth agape and get your woke wheels turning, but before you can string together a clear intersectional analysis, they will stun you into submission. The work (in Part 1 aptly titled “Work”) is too visceral to intellectualize. It is also incredibly funny, so be prepared to laugh then fall back into quiet and stillness. All of this takes place before a wall of mirrors. Clint Ramos’ minimalist scenic reminds us that we are probing deeply into themes of racial objectification, fears of miscegenation, and our own sense of being seen as a collective. Slave Play’s dramaturg Amauta M. Firmino calls it the exposure of “our captive fantasies” to “illustrate the uncanny contours of colonized desire, historical trauma, and sexual entanglement.”
Only a third into this two-hour intermissionless play and I began to question what exactly was going on. The characters all seemed a little off the center of who they are meant to be. After the first 45 minutes, I wished for a break to cool off a bit and perhaps discuss some issues that would inevitably come up while watching. But no such luck. Harris is intentionally relentless.
This feels like a good time to mention I am a Gen X cis white woman represented in Slave Play by the only unbearable character of the lot, Alana, and aware that this puts me in a place where part of my experience watching Slave Play is to sit through the discomfort this causes and come to better terms with my own white privilege (for additional help with this there is a table in the lobby labeled DIG DEEPER and handouts, among them “So what can I do once I recognize my white privilege?”). Harris asks us to listen to, feel for and empathize with all his characters while forcing us into sensory overload, not from actual flashing lights or a cacophony of sounds but the response to so many levels of race, gender, and class power dynamics on display. This is America.
If the action ended after Act One there would be enough to discuss for days, but instead, there is a second and final act that introduces two more characters Tea (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) to guide the previous six into a process of self-discovery and shared communication. It is messy and at times circuitous, tangent-laden and unresolved, and runs the gamut from hilarious to tragic (not unlike real life family therapy, incidentally). The dialogue is rapid-fire and intelligent, laced with enough academic upper echelons lingo to provide another portal into the erotic (hands up if you’re a sapiophile, too).
Instead of spilling the plot beans, I will honor the playwright’s belief with which I agree: the less you know about Slave Play before you see it, the better it unfolds and the more satisfying the character reveals and plot twist surprises.
Instead, let’s discuss the playwright himself, Jeremy O. Harris. The 29-year-old wunderkind in his final year at Yale School of Drama is, according to GQ in partnership with Gucci, “the theater world’s vital new voice.” OUT anointed him “the queer black savior the theater world needs.” New York Times compared his arrival onto New York City’s Off-Broadway scene to a comet — he will have not one but two plays up this season with the forthcoming Daddy starring Alan Cumming.
Harris grew up a young, black, gay man in Virginia and in his 2016 VICE piece explains, “So I began to decolonize my desires the only way I knew how — through writing. That obsession, like an itch, spread through me in the way that had moved my forefathers. I began to slowly process what it meant to be a black, male body in a white gay’s world.”
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Director Robert O’Hara takes a play that in the wrong hands could feel like a jackhammer to the psyche and finds a way to level out the hits, largely through deft pacing and mining of the material for the balance of drama and comedy. The performances are bold, real, captivating and nuanced across the board, a true ensemble piece, but Slave Play is anchored by and made revelatory through the work of James Cusati-Moyer (Broadway’s Six Degrees of Separation), Teyonah Parris (Broadway’s A Free Man of Color and the film If Beale Street Could Talk) and Irene Sofia Lucio (Broadway’s Wit).
Slave Play is a must see. You will leave transformed. All you have to do is trust the process.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th Street, NYC
Through January 13, 2019
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Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.