After a sold-out critically acclaimed run at the New York Theatre Workshop, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play is now sending electric shockwaves on Broadway at the Golden Theater. Going in blind, Slave Play appears literally set on an antebellum plantation. But a startling anachronism to the tune of Rihanna’s “Work It” cues the audience that something is amiss. Keep reading if you want to know the twist.
It is slowly revealed that three interracial couples are performing Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy at a retreat. When their sexual acts are done, the couples spend the middle of the play in a tense sit-down to reckon with their own racial dynamics with their loved ones.
Jeremy O. Harris plants his players into a provocative thought experiment to pose some answers–or questions–about how the presence of identity, sexuality, love, desire, power imbalances, will always be tangled in historical trauma. Clint Ramos‘ scenic design lines a barrier of mirrors, as a not-so-subtle indication of the players (and audience) contending with their own souls.
Harris’s script leans on the heightened nature of the scenarios (“Is this even a real study?” one character questions) through the perky therapist duo, Tea (Challa La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), who are implied to be in a relationship and are exerting their experiment, not just out of research, but to project their own relationship struggles. It’s a solid execution, though the commonplace proscenium stage can only do so much for Robert O’Hara‘s direction than say, an immersive staging.
Harris and O’Hara hurl the audience into a maddening labyrinth of identity and politics–with dashes of big laughs, such when Alana (Annie McNamara) constantly takes up space as a white woman does. These laughs contrast with her black significant other Philip’s (Sullivan Jones) breakdown when he grasps how his white-dominated environment had objectified him in ways he didn’t realize demeaned his personhood.
The white-passing Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) angst about his identity (which is never stated aloud) being erased when being assigned the role of a white man and hasn’t quite come to terms with this privilege. It’s an anguish that feels both valid while evident that he is siphoning space from his partner Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), who comes to his own realization about his weightier relationship burdens. The meeting caps off with a visceral call-out where a black woman, Kaniesha (a ferocious Joaquina Kalukango), calls her white European husband Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) “a virus.”
There’s too much to glean from Slave Play and it will hit in varying ways to its audience, particularly how it chooses to conclude Kaniesha’s and Jim’s marital arc. For those who have a breakthrough, they realize words, jargon, language can only go so far as to describe their pain if their partners can’t quite listen. Harris is loud and clear on many things and this is only one of them: White people will never understand how their black loved ones are still living with the screams and scars of history.
A version of this review was published in DivaGalsDaily.
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