Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” which opened Sunday at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, is a giant trigger warning in three acts. This is an ambitious, at times uneven satire about race and sex and power and politics that seems designed to provoke.
The two-hour drama begins with the surprisingly graphic onstage couplings of three interracial couples on an antebellum Virginia plantation. A white overseer named Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) hooks up with a broom-wielding slave named Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango, “When They See Us”) — though not before forcing her to eat cantaloupe off the floor. A white mistress (Annie McNamara) orders an educated mixed-race slave, Phillip (Sullivan Jones), to play the violin before penetrating him with a dildo. And a black overseer (Ato Blankson-Wood) brings himself to orgasm when he makes a white indentured servant (James Cusati-Moyer) lick his boots.
But since we first meet Keneisha twerking to Rihanna’s “Work” and Phillip picks out an R. Kelly tune on his fiddle, things are not quite what they seem. Indeed, Harris has a very big twist up his sleeve that’s as clever as it is outrageous — and one that has generated much talk since his first professional production opened late last year at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop.
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Harris’ intentions become clearer in the middle section of his three-act, intermissionless play, with the introduction of two modern-day academics-cum-therapists (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) who use terms like “heteropatriarchal” and “positionality” in an attempt to help people to “process” their feelings. That processing does not seem to go well for anyone on stage — including the therapists themselves as they seek to impose in-vogue theory on the messy reality of American race relations.
That’s also when Clint Ramos’ ingenious set design — with giant mirrors that reflect not only a giant Southern plantation positioned just in front of the mezzanine but also the Broadway audience — begins to take on new meaning. We theater goers are inescapably implicated in the on-stage action, not only for our voyeuristic gaze but also for our own assumptions and biases.
Nobody comes off well in Harris’ dissection of race, black or white or Latinx (because no modern look at race relations can escape a nod to intersectionality). In Harris’ view, patterns of oppression have become so ingrained that African Americans often fail to recognize their footprints — even when they are clearly marked on their backs.
And white liberals get no credit for good intentions. Indeed, one black character recalls the decimation of indigenous peoples by the arrival of Europeans to the American continent and concludes that whites really are “the virus” infecting the culture: “Your mere presence was biological warfare.”
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Harris, who graduated just this year from Yale Drama School, is prodigiously talented — as he proved in the Alan Cumming-led drama “Daddy” at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre earlier this year. And “Slave Play” is a bold statement of a play. It can also be saggy, particularly in the second act, which entails a series of reveals and catharses that check boxes but don’t always feel earned. (Curiously, it’s the white characters who sometimes emerge as more rounded, or at least as more recognizable types — perhaps because they do more of the talking, in a dramatic reflection of their privilege.)
And the third act, which reunites one of the couples in an encounter that is both intimate and humiliatingly raw, seems more designed to shock than illuminate. It’s hard to believe these are flesh-and-blood humans who might have chosen to be together in a relationship; they seem more like props — or in this case, agitprops — for Harris’ provocative message about the dreadful state of race relations. Perhaps over time, Harris will steal a page from playwrights like Robert O’Hara, who directs this production and whose own plays create fuller, rounded characters in the midst of button-pushing plots.
Despite its flaws, “Slave Play” announces the arrival of a bold and challenging new voice in theater. And there’s no doubt that Harris has the talent to produce a masterpiece (or five). He also has that rarer quality, drive. In the words of his muse, he is willing to “work work work work work.”