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How to Fuck With White Supremacy

With “Daddy” and Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris does just that (sometimes literally).

Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya
Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya
Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya

In the winter of 2015, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris decided to write Slave Play as a bit of a dare. He was at a holiday party in Prospect Heights, where he got into a heated debate with a group of writers about “erotics, desire, and who gets to own fantasy.” One of them, a straight white guy, said he had recently enjoyed enacting a rape fantasy with a partner. Feeling his Socratic self, Harris decided to troll him. “You could rape anyone, any day,” he said. “You probably have raped someone. What does that mean that you’re owning this?” Then he took it further, asking if the guy would feel the same about rape play if his partner were black. “Everything got really tense for everyone,” Harris recalls. “I was like, Wait. Why is it tense now, but it wasn’t tense before?

At that moment, the idea for Slave Play sprung out of his brain, Athena-like. “First act, second act,” he says during a late-night car ride from New York to New Haven, where he’s a third-year student in the playwriting M.F.A. program at Yale. “I’m going to write this.” Slave Play would imagine what rape play would look like for an interracial couple in antebellum costumes. The first act would begin with three interracial couples, gay and straight, enacting various sexual dominance scenarios on an AstroTurf plantation. The second would reveal that the couples are engaging in a cutting-edge therapy technique utilizing “race play” — a subset of BDSM — to get the black partner reengaged sexually in the relationship, working out the master-slave dialectic onstage through talk and sex. Someone said it sounded “insane,” but Harris’s friend the writer Maxwell Neely-Cohen told him it was so fucked up he would watch it even though he didn’t frequent the theater.

It was a challenge, a lark, an intellectual exercise. “I’ll have it done by your birthday,” he remembers telling Neely-Cohen, whose birthday is the day after his own in June. “It was like a joke.”

Over the next 18 months, Harris wrote the play, sending periodic drafts to Aaron Malkin, a literary associate at the New York Theatre Workshop, which eventually held a reading in the winter of 2018* before deciding to make the play one of its centerpiece productions for the 2018–19 season. “That is a remarkably fast track,” says James Nicola, the NYTW’s artistic director. “It usually takes us years and years to piece things together like that. But we felt the nature of the conversation was pretty urgent and we didn’t want to wait.”

From there, Slave Play became a critical hit that went beyond the bubble of the downtown theater world, turning into a conversational flash point in cultural circles. During the final weekend of its run in January, Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, Anna Wintour, Stephen Sondheim, and Jake Gyllenhaal were among the attendees. With more attention came the inevitable backlash — not from white reviewers or audience members but mainly from the section Harris describes as “dark-wave black Twitter/internet,” which, without having seen it, denounced the work as promoting “gutter sex” and the “white supremacist agenda.” Page Six reported that producers were divided on the play, as well as on a potential move to Broadway. The cast, particularly the black members and director Robert O’Hara, were subjected to condemnation and received death threats. Harris went to Tulum for a couple of weeks.

Still, he had kept his end of the bargain. When he finished the play, Harris handed a hard copy of the script to his friend that officially bears the opening acknowledgment:

For Maxwell Neely-Cohen,

on the occasion of his 30th Birthday,

the only person who will love this play.

“Fuck, why am I yawning now?” says Harris as we walk into his room in New Haven around 3 a.m. via Uber from New York. Earlier that night, he was in a production meeting in New York for “Daddy, his second Off Broadway production this season, starring Alan Cumming at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The two-bedroom apartment looks and smells like grad-student life, with its own geotag on Instagram (“Kween Palace”), a pizza box on the floor, piles of books, and a female mannequin outfitted in a red Lacoste sweater next to the living-room couch. When we walk in, there’s a friend sleeping on said couch.

Whatever Harris has to get done gets done in the moment. So even though he’s fresh off the sold-out run of Slave Play and his mind is fretting over the prospect of canceling his first two previews for “Daddy” because of technical concerns, tonight he is still a 29-year-old third-year student at Yale running up against a deadline. He’s hoping to write 50 more pages of another play, Tell Me If I’m Hurting You: A Pageant of My Woes, for a 10:30 a.m. workshop where the chair of the program, Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning playwright for Moonlight, will be in attendance.

“I was supposed to write in the car, and you kept me up doing your job, so I’m going to keep you up doing mine,” Harris tells me. He stretches out on the bed with his MacBook on his stomach, millennial-pink Acne beanie on his head, and a one-and-a-half-liter bottle of Evian within reach as he queues up some songs — serpentwithfeet, the soundtrack to BPM, and Frank Ocean — to get him on the right wavelength for the work.

Harris doesn’t begin writing immediately, instead distracting himself with reviews of recent Off Broadway productions starring his friends and former classmates, before launching into a longer aria about theater criticism. Specifically, the charge that Slave Play is too much about ideas and arguments as opposed to humanist portraiture.

“It’s like, Yeah, of course they’re ideas. Duh!” he begins. “One of the pleasures of theater [is] being around a hyperarticulate argument. When we leave, we can continue those arguments with the people we’re with. And while people can see reflections of humanity inside of those arguments, perhaps people attached more humanity onto them than I necessarily think anyone needs to. I feel that argument is thrown a lot on black and brown work because we go to black and brown work for empathy and not for argument. The people want that work to teach us how to feel about others instead of allowing others to make us think.”

Indeed, I became mildly obsessed with Slave Play for the ferocity and brazenness of the ideas. They were shocking to hear out loud — the dark parts of human desire rooted in the mean and the abject. Here was a work that looked at the subterranean, taboo aspects of desire and sex in America’s ongoing racial psychodrama. Something whispered, finally screamed. What did it mean for interracial couples — in this case, black and white people — to desire each other and acknowledge race? How do the ghosts of history invade the bedroom? What would it mean to, quite literally, fuck with white supremacy?

“I was always like, ‘I want to make a play that does not pretend as soon as you leave out of here, you aren’t going to an incognito window on your phone and looking up ‘ebony porn,’ because you are,” Harris says. “They just delete the history, or they don’t. For me, that is a metaphor for race relations writ large in our country: Our understanding of history is a constant erasing of our incognito window.”

The third and final act of the play, titled “Exorcise” in the script, focuses on one couple whose actions proved controversial to audience members: a black woman, Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris), and a white British man, Jim (Paul Nolan Alexander). The first act ends with a desire unfulfilled; Kaneisha exhorts her husband, playing an overseer, to call her a “nasty, lazy Negress” and to take her sexually. He halts the production, and everyone else’s fantasy, by calling out the safe word: Starbucks! Throughout the second act, they’re at an impasse. He doesn’t understand why they’re doing this; she’s frustrated that he’s not listening. The third act, then, is the reckoning. When they’re alone in her room, she tells him how a “fog lifted” and she began to see who he was, a demon. A virus. He fulfills the request from the first act and gets back into character as the slave master with unexpected force, telling her to shut her mouth and that he’s going to “give you what you need” and “get what I need.” He says, “You can nod your head,” and she does wordlessly. He then “rapes” her until she says the safe word and they stop. They’re both in tears, and she ends the play by saying, “Thank you, baby. Thank you for listening.”

Teyonah Parris and Paul Alexander Nolan doing antebellum cosplay as Kaneisha and Jim in Slave Play. Photo: Joan Marcus

When I ask Harris about how one should read this, he parries, instead asking me how I interpreted it. I relay a conversation I had afterwards with a friend, a queer woman of color in a relationship with a white man. She saw the act as unquestionably rape, whereas I saw it as invited domination. Harris is mostly uninterested in illuminating authorial intent: “Politics, especially around identity, does force us to flatten things more often than we should, in the sense of, we feel the need to dictate the objective more often than the subjective.”

He gestures to the row of books on his windowsill — “Can you hand me the Jacobean-tragedies book behind you?” — and begins flipping through The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton, which is “when the Jacobean tragedy really figured itself out.” Tell Me If I’m Hurting You is a modern spin on the form, inspired by a recent breakup, with a mise-en-scène described in the script as “the bountiful landscape of faggotry.” When I read the draft, I picture the “Homo” section of Todd Haynes’s film Poison, with its beautiful boys, boyhood cruelty, and flower petals. In the exposition, Harris notes that it should remind the audience of the photographs of Rotimi Fani-Kayode and James Bidgood. He starts writing out a scene between a group of young men who deploy the language of hookup apps, of “looking for.”

I would learn over the course of 28 hours that this is just how Jeremy O. Harris operates. His mind is bright like quicksilver; he switches constantly between topics, tasks, and worlds; it’s part of what has allowed him to traverse the various spheres of theater, art, fashion, academia, social media, and criticism. He’ll edge breathtakingly close to deadlines, like he’s playing a game of chicken — whether he’s memorizing the opening lines of a monologue to kick off the Telfar fashion show for New York Fashion Week, or rehearsing bits as the emcee for the New York Theatre Workshop’s annual gala — and still pull it off with a flourish. He relishes in the intellectual joust, parsing ideas, and hearing about new ones. You get the sense that he could have done anything, but right now, he’s playwriting.

After a few hours of sleep, if that, Harris is up and running about 30 minutes late for class. He pulls on his outfit from the previous night, a Thom Browne turtleneck with buttons running down the spine and a $6,200 floor-length Gucci coat that looks like a mage’s battle cloak on his six-four frame. It was a gift from the brand to commemorate the opening of Slave Play. Like Harris, the coat exudes a strong Gemini energy. It’s split in half — dark gray wool on one side and red plaid on the other, adorned with buttons like peach gummies and an illustration from the comic Viva! Volleyball by the Japanese artist Chikae Ide. Serious and playful. Dramatic and light.

On his way to class, he collects his friend, the actor Patrick Foley, who went to Yale with him and will take part in the reading, before heading to a nearby basement computer room to print out copies of the play for people to read.

“Is Tarell going to be there?” Foley asks.

Harris swats away the question, annoyed. “Why does everybody keep asking me that?”

I ask how they met, and Harris says he saw Foley in a production of Alice in Wonderland.

“It was love at first sight. Jeremy’s a presence that we’re lucky to be in. Or, Jeremy’s a supernova consuming all the energy around him!” Foley cackles, making a cheeky reference to the way McCraney describes Harris in a New York Times profile.

“Shut up! Shut up!” Harris says.

“Yeah, you have to attribute [that] to Mr. Alvin McCraney. Yale School of Shade,” Foley says with a grin.

Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya

Harris didn’t get enough written last night, so he decides to have the workshop also read aloud from his TV pilot script, The Live-In, which he wrote as a sample to apply for a writer’s assistant job on Girls.

As the pages print, Harris orders us egg sandwiches and iced coffee on Snackpass to pick up on our way, while Foley tells me about a play Harris put on during his first year at Yale, called Water Sports; or insignificant white boys, that made him an enfant terrible. The Yale School of Drama never officially sanctioned the production, mainly because of regulations about which students can perform in official plays. So instead, during a break period known as recess, Harris bypassed the rules and asked his friends and first-years if they would act in it. And rather than using the theater, he staged the show at the art gallery.

“I don’t like to ask permission,” says Harris. “I just like to do a thing. The circumventing was a thing that happened in people’s minds because I wasn’t even seeing a barrier to me doing it. I was like, I fucking wrote this play. I’m free. I’m going to do it. That sort of started my relationship with Yale.” (His thesis play, titled Yell, is a critical review of his time at the institution.)

Water Sports spanned various rooms of the gallery, including the freight elevator, taking an interactive approach and splitting the audience into two experiences — the black path, where they’re guided by the character “Jeremy,” and the white path, where they follow “His Friend.” Along the way, each guide meets and interacts with gay legends James Baldwin and Robert Mapplethorpe. Glances and kisses are exchanged; the black-white dyad loops and inverts. Harris played Baldwin; Foley played “His Friend.”

“It was Jeremy, getting naked and having Champagne poured all over him as piss,” Foley recalls. “It was the event of the fall! All the art kids, undergrads, and school of drama people wedged into this hallway. So many of the faculty came that I think it was just, Okay, cool. Don’t do that again, but good job!

Harris grabs the pages, still warm from the printer, and we’re off again, following the golden lining of his coat fluttering in the wind.

When we arrive, McCraney is waiting, straight-backed and imperious, with a group of students and actors. If he’s ticked by Harris’s tardiness, he’s just cooly so. Unfazed, Harris passes out the scripts, assigns roles, and begins to talk. He explains his inspiration from the Jacobean tragedies and how he imagines most of the parts being played by adolescent boys as an homage to the all-boy theater companies from the turn of the 17th century. The script is prefaced with a number of quotes from songs we listened to the night prior; Harris asks if everyone listened to the playlist he’d sent ahead of time. “We did play the playlist,” replies McCraney. “But we didn’t know when to stop.”

The reading moves at a clipped pace. Tell Me If I’m Hurting You centers on the relationship between two boys, Vinnie and Baby Boy, and it’s evident from the beginning that Baby Boy is one of those guys Lauryn Hill told you to watch out for. After Harris, one of the other students leads everyone else in “a quick Liz Lerman,” a method developed by the MacArthur-grant-winning choreographer for giving and receiving feedback. It’s here that the language takes on a cushioned, academic edge. People wonder about intent, vision, and references, and Harris tells them how he sees the tableaux. Maybe it could be staged in a place like St. John the Divine?

Next, they read The Live-in, which is inspired by Harris’s real-life friend. The protagonist is a young woman named Keely, who has a cocaine habit and works as a live-in nanny for a wealthy widower — she parties all night and vomits while picking the kids up from school. “I love Girls,” Harris says. “And I think it’s really disingenuous if any of us, especially the people who are writing work that is mining the self and brazen and sexual, were to say we weren’t influenced by her. Because we’ve been chasing her since. We all saw Girls and got filled with rage that it existed. How did this happen for this other person who’s 24?”

He shopped the pilot around, too, but agents suggested that he turn it into a short film first, which would require figuring out how to raise money and shoot it. “I decided to just not,” says Harris. “Because one of the options I heard was you could just write a play and have that produced. I was like, you know what, fuck TV, fuck movies. I just wanna write plays.”

Harris ends the workshop a little early, and he and the remaining students help put away the tables and chairs. He tells McCraney he’s stressed out about “Daddy, with which there are lingering concerns around blocking scenes that involve the stage centerpiece: a 27-by-10-and-a-half-foot pool in the foreground.

“They canceled two previews of my show,” he says with a slight whine.

“They always cancel previews,” McCraney replies.

“I’m gonna die.”

“You’re not gonna die.”

I ask him about his relationship with McCraney. Harris is reluctant to talk about it. “I always have difficulties with people in positions of power,” he says. “You know, complications. That’s the anti-institutional bent that I have. And that’s not to say that me and Tarell have conflicts, it’s just that the rougher patches generally come from my natural distrust of authority figures. And I don’t envy having to do what he does.”

He adds, “I just feel like [if] there’s one thing I find I don’t want to ever talk about in an interview, [it’]s Tarell.”

While his work plumbs the depths of the psychosexual, Harris favors opacity when it comes to his personal life, his desires and preferences. In an essay for Vice in 2016, he analyzed his early taste in white men as a product of his environment, and his subsequent “decolonizing” process. In person, he would rather play the role of sexual anthropologist, instead inquiring about my own experiences with fetishization as a queer Asian man. (“Have you had that happen before? Where people are like, Let me shave you.”) As for himself, he seems to take a perverse pleasure in the assumptions people project onto his body. “Some people think I chase white dick all the time,” he says. “They don’t need to know. I don’t need to give you a laundry list of who I fuck, how I fuck, or where I fuck.”

In “Daddy, a young, ascendant black artist named Franklin (Ronald Peet) gets into a relationship with an older, wealthier white art collector Andre (Cumming) — a ne’er-do-well with little taste but a lot of money. Andre is attracted to Franklin’s eye, his youth and talent and blackness; he seems, at first, like another piece for his collection. Franklin wants a father figure, and over three acts, he regresses into baby talk. His mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard), arrives; a struggle ensues. Power subtly shifts between Franklin and Andre, too. It’s the Hegelian dialectic, only stretched and laid out in the California sun next to a Hockney–blue pool.

Ronald Peet, who plays Franklin, wades into “Daddy.” Photo: Matt Saunders

Like “Daddy,” there is a biological father figure — physically absent, but palpably present — hanging over our conversations. Harris grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, a small city on the southern border abutting North Carolina. His mother is a hair stylist specializing in trichology (the study of the scalp), particularly as it relates to hair loss in women. She practiced on his head when he was in middle school, twisting, braiding, and dying it. When he was 10, they moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, only to move back to Martinsville “when everything fell apart,” he says vaguely. When I ask him about his father, the air seizes around us. “I don’t want to talk about him,” he replies. “My mom is the only parent that matters.”

Instead of spending the day in New Haven, we’re heading straight back to New York. Tonight, Harris is co-hosting the New York Theatre Workshop’s annual fundraising gala, alongside What the Constitution Means to Me writer and performer Heidi Schreck. We get on the Acela to New York with a few minutes to spare, grabbing a four-top with seats facing each other. Harris’s mind and fingers are rarely at rest, and during these in-between moments, he’s usually wading through unread text messages or scrolling through Instagram. He notes that he won another bet he made with his roommate: cracking 10,000 followers before they graduated.

“Oh my God,” he exclaims.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Gucci’s so sweet! They’re just giving me a suit.”

Harris didn’t have a change of clothes for the gala, so he emailed someone at Gucci to ask if they could messenger some options over to him.

“I’m friends with the brand,” he says casually.

“Friend” is a common designation for the many people, institutions, and companies in his orbit. He makes friends horizontally and up the totem pole. In this case, he met Gucci executives through Hari Nef, the model turned actress who stars as the art gallerist Alessia in “Daddy, which later led him to make a video for the brand and British GQ, with his friend Janicza Bravo. (The two co-wrote the upcoming A24 film Zola based off the epic Twitter thread.) He became friends with Nef at a Fourth of July pool party at Stonewall director Roland Emmerich’s house. He’s friends with the clothing brands Thom Browne and Telfar. He introduces me to people as his friend, as well.

At the gala, Harris exerts a gravitational pull around him as we walk through the old Bowery Savings Bank building, and he is stopped at various points by donors, trustees, and fellow theater-makers. Slave Play is mentioned throughout the ceremonies, including by Kelly Fowler Hunter, the president of the board of trustees, who calls it “furiously entertaining.” There is both an implicit and explicit understanding that Slave Play was a triumph not simply because it was provocative and daring but also because Harris is a queer black voice amid a sea of white ones.

Harris understands that race itself is a nihilistic construct with Beckettian levels of absurdity, particularly if you’re a black body in America and a queer one at that. “My body suffered from the tyranny of the white gaze. In a way that furthered my suffering, I learned ways to please it so that it would hurt me less or hurt me differently,” he says. “I learned how to make the gaze look and then look away.”

Onstage, he and Schreck enjoy some banter about the success of their respective plays. When it comes time to introduce the auctioneer, Harris goes off-script:

I’m about to ask you guys to give a bunch of money, right? So there’s a whole theme here, there’s a theme around reparations, see? It’s crazy, right? And while we’re at it, a lot of art and artists that we are helping here are artists who did not come from the African diaspora. As someone who did, I can say that each of your dollars did work like reparations for me! [Laughter.] Which is exactly what I told Anna Wintour when I shook her hand as she left my play!

The audience, concentric pods of suits and blowouts, titters along. The moment reminds me of a conversation we had on the drive up to New Haven almost 24 hours prior when I’d asked him when he learned to manipulate the gaze and walk through the world unconstrained. I wanted to understand how he did that, so that maybe I could learn how to do it myself.

After high school, Harris attended the acting program at DePaul University, which, at the time, would cut its freshman class from 52 down to 26 after their first year, like a reality television show competition. He was cut after his first year, even though he felt, knew, that he was better than the white students who got through. “I had, like, a psychotic break, but I refuse to let the limitation [of] my identity dictate what I was going to do or how well I did,” he says. At some point he stopped apologizing for his difference, and his personal style is an expression of that. His hair is big like a cloudburst; he favors boots that give an extra boost to his six-foot-four frame.

“I just stopped worrying … and decided to live recklessly,” he continues. “White people with power see themselves as something more than human. That allows them to live recklessly. That’s how they can get a DUI and a manslaughter charge and still think they can run for senator. I realized their gaze meant actually nothing. The minute I took their gaze away, I was like, Oh, no. I’m already a superhero, too.

As the ceremony comes to an end, Harris receives well-wishes and congratulations from various people, including Daphne Rubin-Vega, who gives him a flurry of kisses and hugs. One man fawns over his coat and asks him how one might possess such a thing. (“You can buy it,” replies Harris.) As we exit, a bald gentleman approaches him with a great deal of familiarity to say that he saw the recent cover of Out magazine featuring Hari Nef and Tommy Dorfman — both of whom are in “Daddy” — which made him excited to see the play.

He’s hot, the little blond,” the man says. “Is he naked in the show?”

“You’ll see!” Harris smirks.

I ask him who that was.

“I have no idea,” he replies as we exit. A small contingent breaks off to go around the block to Tropical 128 for an after-party, where Harris alternates Patrón on the rocks with American Spirits outside.

“I think we could have broken $200,000 if you didn’t make the reparations joke,” quips Jeremy Blocker, the managing director of the NYTW.

“[The auctioneer] wasn’t going as deep as he could have,” replies Harris, taking a sip of tequila. “I was going to go up there and shame all those rich people.”

The conversation broadens to the underlying question: “How do you get the white money into the black theater?” wonders Deadria Harrington, part of the leadership team at the Movement Theatre Company, which specifically programs and cultivates work by people of color.

“You ask for it,” Harris says matter-of-factly. Someone makes a joke about how black theater projects will only receive big influxes of capital once Blue Ivy comes of patronage age. But in general, Harris isn’t precious about money, whether he’s asking for it at a donor dinner or it’s being offered. He wonders if it would be such a terrible thing if Coca-Cola sponsored a theatrical production, like the Skittles musical. Scott Rudin has already commissioned two plays from him. And according to Nicola, conversations about a Broadway transfer of Slave Play are still “ongoing” and “very much alive.”

If Slave Play goes to Broadway, it will mean more attention, and everything that comes with it (can you imagine the tweets?). For all his bravado, Harris admits that the backlash, particularly the charge that he doesn’t care about black people, stung. “It did still feel like not being picked on the playground when other people were just like, This person does not wanna be black, just because it worked inside of a different paradigm,” he says. “And that was something. Because we also all know the people who get invited into that space and get canonized in a space of black theater.”

Harris sees himself in the lineage of rebellious black playwrights — people like Alice Childress, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy, Marita Bonner. “One of the things I never wanted to do was make work that only worked to put black and brown people, or even queer people, in a nice light,” says Harris. “I’m not holding on to that burden of representation. If you’re black, and you’ve been waiting for a black Lars von Trier — I’m that dude.”

But while contemporary theater revivals may neglect their forebears, Harris wants to be enshrined in the canon alongside the Albees and Stoppards. Right now, he’s managing to walk the impressive tightrope between the periphery and the center. “Jeremy doesn’t seem to feel, like a lot of other artists of color, ‘If I speak up, am I risking the relationship I have by seeming to be uppity or challenging in some way?’” says Nicola. “He seems to have been able to find a way to do and say what he wants to say without apologizing or anything.”

“I think it’s recklessness mixed with a fluency in the language of power,” Harris muses. “I know the history of power. I can speak the language of powerbrokers in a different way.”

He puts down his glass and calls an Uber to New Haven. It’s 3:21 a.m., and he has class in the morning.

*The New York Theatre Workshop held a reading in the winter of 2018, not 2017 as previously written.

*A version of this article appears in the March 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Tommy Dorfman uses the gender pronouns they/them/their.
How to Fuck With White Supremacy