off broadway

Theater Review: Slave Play Blends the Terrifying and the Tantalizing

Photo: Joan Marcus

To really talk about Jeremy O. Harris’s supercharged, fearsome, and often terribly funny Slave Play, I have to begin with a spoiler alert: If you’re seeing the play — and there are plenty of reasons to see it — stop reading this now. Come back afterward. Harris, a second-year playwriting student at the Yale School of Drama whose rising star is following an exponential curve, has said that Slave Play — the first of two of his pieces that will make their NYC premieres in the coming months — “moves best if no one knows what will happen.” He’s not kidding. And the team at New York Theatre Workshop have cannily kept the play’s marketing copy just on the intriguing side of generic. The story, we’re told, takes place on the MacGregor Plantation in Virginia where “the old South lives on,” “fear and desire entwine in the looming shadow of the Master’s House,” and “nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems.” There’s something Delphic about those intentional almost-clichés. Like the play’s title, they’re packed with sly double meaning. Slave Play has a Janus-like quality — it seems to confront the past, but its other face is turned with an unsparing gaze, at times satirical but ultimately humane, on the unhealed wounds of the present.

Slave Play unfolds without an intermission in three acts, the second of which pulls what we’ve been witnessing out from under us, as if Harris is whipping a tablecloth off a loaded banquet table. Real, full-bodied surprise is in woefully short supply in the theater these days, and though Harris’s play is rich with specialized academic diction and rarefied points of reference — the dramaturg’s program note is packed with lit theory quotations — the piece also understands the old-fashioned showmanship of a good twist. There’s delicious danger in truly not knowing what might happen next, and Slave Play is all about that collision between what’s terrifying and what’s tantalizing. It keeps us and its characters destabilized, but for all its psychosexual extremes (it’s very R-rated), it’s not an abusive piece of work. While it sometimes hurts, it never aims to dehumanize, and when its characters start hurting, no matter who they are or what their flaws, the play doesn’t mock their growing pains.

First, we witness three sexual duets, taking place, so it seems, in the fields and boudoirs of the MacGregor Plantation. There’s some unsettling foreplay between a slave, Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) and the overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan): He catches her anachronistically twerking to Rihanna’s “Work” and seems torn between wanting to debase her — he orders her to eat a shattered cantaloupe off the floor and shivers with lust as she digs into it — and wanting her to think he’s different from the “Big House Folk” (he cringes when she calls him “Massa Jim,” moping that it “don’t seem quite fair … to put me in the same category as them”). Then there’s Alana (Annie McNamara), the tightly wound mistress of the house, whose massive antebellum couch-cake of a dress conceals a would-be dominatrix who wants nothing more than to sodomize Phillip (Sullivan Jones) — the tall, super-buff, violin-playing house slave — with a giant black dildo. And somewhere outside the windows of Alana’s bedchamber, there’s Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a slave who’s been granted authority over the white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer). Dustin — who has an ambiguous look about him, as if he might be Italian or perhaps Latinx — seems to resent being called “white,” and he and Gary soon end up in a violent tussle that morphs into an equally violent make-out session. When Dustin starts licking Gary’s “big black” boot, Gary comes. And then cries.

If Slave Play has a muse, it’s probably Rihanna. Her song “Work” not only pops up throughout the piece (it belongs specifically to Kaneisha and represents both psychological torment and physical release for her) but is also quoted in neon above the mirrored back wall of Clint Ramos’s set — in which we can see reflected a large banner, hung behind us and showing a sunny Virginia plantation, and we can see ourselves. “Nuh body touch me you nuh righteous” the looming letters atop the wall read. Soon enough, we’ll learn that Rihanna isn’t as anachronistic as we might think, and that the whole play is an exegesis on the link — here, the specifically racialized interplay — between sex and work that she’s singing about. It’s also a play about how we’re seen: how we see ourselves, how we want our partners and the world to see us, and the scary, unavoidable — though often, to ourselves, invisible — lenses history has clapped over our eyes.

That’s because — and here’s your final spoiler warning, folks — Kaneisha and Jim, Alana and Phillip, and Gary and Dustin are all real, present-day couples. Slave Play cracks wide open when, as Kaneisha is nearing climax with Jim, she demands that he call her a “nasty Negress” — mid-coitus, Jim pales and pulls away. “Starbucks!” he shouts strangely, and all at once the lights shift, and in bustle Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), two hyperarticulate, super-supportive researchers armed with iPads and a whole dictionary’s worth of mediation jargon. “I think we should all take a little breather?” Teá chirps. “Let’s meet back in the big house in 15?”

“Slave Play,” it turns out, is the blunter way of phrasing what Teá and Patricia are up to. They call it Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. They birthed it at Smith and raised it up at Yale, and it’s a radical role-play-based therapy intended to “help black partners reengage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” It’s about “tackling your anhedonia at its source,” Teá assures Kaneisha, Phillip, and Gary, as all three couples reemerge onto the stage in the play’s second act, with the nervy closed faces of actors girding their loins for a particularly frustrating talk-back. The brilliant twist of Slave Play is that for all the graphic intimacy of the show’s first act, its performers are infinitely more exposed in the acts to come, when the real people that they’re playing must struggle to come to grips with the fantasies they’ve just enacted. The casual put-on racism, seemingly bizarre desires, and flights of violence that occurred during the couples’ role-play might have hurt, but attempting to look each other in the eyes after the performance — attempting to speak to each other and, more important and more difficult, to listen — is going to hurt much, much more.

“I’m confused,” says the usually quiet Phillip as Teá and Patricia lead a “processing” session. “So, like, are you saying that my — um — the reason I can’t get it up … The reason I don’t come is because of — just, like, racism?” Like so much of Slave Play, the line is irresistibly funny, and also dead serious. The play’s humor catches us off guard and also keeps us open: It engages us in a mental conversation that, without a healthy sense of both the sincere and the absurd, many of us (and, yes, I’m talking about us white folks in the audience) might balk at having. The bravery of the play, multiplied by the absolute fearlessness of its actors, makes us braver, too. It doesn’t and can’t promise that the things it wants to tell us won’t hurt (“When you ah guh / Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn,” go Rihanna’s lyrics, “Meh nuh cyar if him / Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting”), but it recognizes the individual, complex humanity of every person engaged in the performance, either as maker or as witness. It both analyzes us as people and sees us as persons.

The pitch-perfect and vulnerable-as-hell performances by the play’s splendid octet of actors are what keep the sense of compassion in Harris’s work at the forefront. Not only does director Robert O’Hara embrace the fierce, fast comedy of the script; he’s also helping his ensemble to go to places that feel simultaneously raw and immensely rewarding. Harris has precisely assembled his dramatis personae: Everyone is an archetype and yet no one feels flat or condescendingly sketched. The play’s second act is as punchy and exhilarating a piece of satire as I’ve seen in a long time — Harris has undoubtedly been in dozens of rooms where people talk earnestly about “triggering,” “processing,” and “unpacking” and use words like “materiality” and “utilize” — and yet it also affords striking, blazingly specific arias for every member of the story’s three couples. We come to know them all, to feel for every one of them — from the slow-burning, heartbreaking suffering of Blankson-Wood’s stifled Gary, to the comically astute, Hermione Granger–esque hand-raising and note-taking of McNamara’s Alana (her eventual breakdown, in which she gasps that great fear of all type-A white women — “Did I … mess up?!” — is as sympathetic as it is sharply hilarious). Sullivan is sleeper brilliant as the chill, sports-bro-ish, light-skinned Phillip, who’s content to sit back and let his white girlfriend talk for him, holding on to a long-held self-image as the “superhuman dude who’s beyond, like, black and white” — until the mental shit finally hits the fan. And Cusati-Moyer brings both wonderful pathos and flamboyance to Dustin, an actor who desperately insists that he’s not white — because “there are shades in between!” — and that “perhaps the reason I don’t want to live in East Harlem anymore has nothing to do with me not wanting to live near black people and has everything to do with me wanting to be able to get to an audition on time!”

Even as the moderators — whom Harris subtly tips as the play’s fourth couple — La Tour and Lucio fill their enthusiastic panel-patter with well-placed hints at the complex dynamics of their own relationship. They keep their game faces on and try hard to represent the successful outcome of the process the participants are all engaged in, but little scars are still picked at. Patricia identifies with Dustin’s distress that the way he sees himself — the shade he thinks he is — isn’t the way Gary (or, most likely, the world) sees him. Yet for all her perspicacity, she repeatedly talks over Teá, who sees something of herself in the detachment of the light-skinned Phillip, and whose eyes burn with a the blue fire of gaslighting every time she gets cut off mid-sentence.

But it’s the one who yelled the safety word who has the furthest to go. As the increasingly racked Jim (who’s revealed as British and posh in Act 2, thus his Act 1 overseer character’s discomfort with being associated with seemingly American historical dynamics of male whiteness), Nolan is a far cry from his most recent role in Escape to Margaritaville. He and Parris have to shoulder the play’s most intimate, most upsetting, and most revelatory moments. They must take the longest journey, because Jim — the straight white man who just doesn’t understand why his black lover might see more when she looks at him than his own individual character — has a massive amount to let go of and just as much to take on. Parris — whose wrenching performance plays out over a long arc, swelling with years of tangled, unspoken rage and desire — becomes both his accuser and his teacher. She’s engaged in a life-or-death struggle with generations of ghosts, and she and Jim can’t find each other again until he acknowledges his shared ownership of those ghosts — until he finally stops insisting, however genuinely and lovingly, on the primacy of his own point of view.

“It is one against legion when a creature tries to differ from his own past selves,” wrote Samuel Butler. Slave Play, which packs roughly two-and-a-half plays into its tight two hours, examines systems and histories by digging into both the typology and the specificity of individuals. It speaks wittily and wisely, and without a one-size-fits-all conclusion, of the trail of fears, assumptions, and aggressions that stretches behind every one of us as a hurting, wanting body moving through a still-wounded, very much not post-race world. Harris and O’Hara have created something that’s provocative, certainly, but actually generous beneath its spiky surface. “Usually, we see slave narratives about how horrible it was and how oppressive white people were,” O’Hara recently told the Times, “but not the collective trauma that we all inherit.” That might sound a little abstract, but Harris and his actors bring it home in the electrically attracted and repulsed bodies of Slave Play’s characters. “I can touch wherever I please — with whatever I please,” Dustin half-threatens Gary as the two face off during their fantasy. “You right,” replies Gary, steely eyed. “And I can say whatever I want — however I want!” Dustin nods: “Guess those be the powers our races have bestowed us.”

Review: Slave Play Blends the Terrifying and the Tantalizing