theater review

Slave Play Nearly Demands a Conversation. So We Had One.

From Slave Play, now transferred to the Golden Theatre. Photo: Matthew Murphy

I first saw Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play at New York Theater Workshop last December. Since then—or, since even before I saw it—it’s been the center of a constant churn of hype, opinion, and, at times, enraged contention. Harris’s write-ups from white critics, myself included, have mostly enthusiastically added fuel to the rocket of the play’s ascent. At the same time, the playwright has fielded intense online backlash from parts of the black community. The buzzworthy incidents have only continued with the show’s transfer to Broadway: Rihanna recently saw the play, and the internet decided to @ her for texting during it (she was texting Harris). On September 18th, Slave Play’s team saved all 804 seats at the Golden Theatre for black theatergoers only — and they filled the house. For the show’s Broadway transfer, the Playbill includes a new cautionary epigraph by the writer Morgan Parker. It’s called “A Note on Your Discomfort,” and it begins, “This might hurt.”

There are still many more white critics than there are critics of color writing about art in all its forms at the most visible outlets, and in revisiting Slave Play, I felt that I didn’t simply want to re-review the play — to add another solo opinion to the overcrowded ether. So what follows is a conversation. This time around, I saw the play with Taylor Barfield, a dramaturg and theater-maker from Baltimore. We went to grad school together (the same school Harris attended, though we didn’t overlap), and Taylor currently serves as the literary manager for Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. He’s also working on his dissertation, which explores, in his words, “how contemporary African-American playwrights re-imagine and re-stage black theater history.” The day after seeing the show together, we spent more than three hours on Google chat — much like the characters in Harris’s play, in slow, precarious pursuit of the words for our feelings.

Sara Holdren: There was something I said to you outside the theater, after the show last night: This is a play where the word “conversation” comes up a lot in its orbit. “What an important part of the conversation”; “It will start such important conversations” — and yet, I realized that I haven’t really gotten to have any conversations about it. Each time that I’ve seen it, I’ve felt very isolated — on an island with my own shifting response to it.

Taylor Barfield: I deeply feel that. I think there’s something about the play that leads each individual audience member down a path of introspection that can be incredibly fear-inducing and insular. I know each time I’ve experienced the thing—I’ve seen it three times now, definitely not something I thought I would do—I’ve left wanting to have a million conversations with myself, but a little tentative to have them with other people.

S.H.: Exactly — it leaves you in an ongoing feedback loop inside your own brain. And, at least for me, doing a lot of second-guessing of my own impulses. Even feeling semi-paralyzed. This time around, I find myself trying to work through this visceral feeling of isolation just as much as I’m working through the play itself. I think I’m left wondering: Does this play prescribe something about how to go forward as a human being in the world with other human beings? Or does it avoid prescription?

T.B.: I think lack of clarity is exactly right for this play. So much of it involves the process of interrogating our own impulses, beliefs, and thoughts on the rawest of levels. This time, knowing the overall structure of the play a bit better after two sit-downs with it, I found myself doing a very similar thing: trying to reconcile my gut emotions with the thoughts racing in my head and the thoughts and emotions of the characters portrayed onstage. It induces that symptom that the characters talk about — alexithymia, the inability to describe one’s own feelings.

S.H.: Yes, it does! The play has three movements: a first in which we witness three strange, troubling (and at times intensely funny) sexual duets on what appears to be an antebellum plantation; a second where (spoiler alert!) we realize that all these pairs are in fact contemporary interracial couples, engaged in roleplay sex therapy; and a third in which one of those couples, in the wake of the “slave play” they’ve engaged in, comes to a place of eviscerating rawness and potential revelation. And in the second of those movements—the one I think of as “The Talkback”—that idea of alexithymia comes up constantly. The two researchers, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) point to it as a key symptom of the particular kind of crisis each of the black partners in these three relationships is facing — an aspect of their anhedonia, their inability to feel pleasure, or really anything, anymore with their white lovers.

T.B.: For me, I’ve always seen this play as a scientist’s bench. It recognizes that there are these very fucked up and pervasive dynamics occurring in 2019 in relation to race, sex, and power that we each individually have to acknowledge (and not just in a facile “I see you” way) if there’s any chance to move forward and heal together or apart.

S.H.: It’s the scientific research—the digging into the psyche—that leads to a reckoning. It’s also what allows Harris to toggle back and forth between comedy and the very-not-funny so quickly. The play has such a nimble, energetic grasp on the buzzwordy conflict-resolution speak of the two moderators — it’s satirical but it’s also very real. We laugh at it, but the play doesn’t mock it.

T.B.: The play has such a strong handle on how language, research, philosophy, modes of understanding are in themselves constructions. And a sizable piece of the work (all hail Rihanna) is to observe something in an open way, especially when you want to look away — or to explain it away from your own perspective, define it and pretend that your definition holds the capital-T-truth, no exceptions. I love that moment when Alana (Annie McNamara) freaks the fuck out after hearing Phillip’s (Sullivan Jones) revelation and yells, “Is this even a real study!?

S.H.: Something that’s happened in my brain—and my heart too—both times I’ve seen the show is a painful, indecipherable blur between the idea of systems and the experience of individuals. The terrible challenge of shuttling back and forth between the acknowledgement of these systemic horrors—these things that are programmed into us or handed down to us or ingrained or institutionalized or whatever words we choose—and the daily, delicate question of just… how to be a person in the world. How to care for another person. It’s probably naive, but I do find myself so saddened by the idea that all the couples in the play—and, by implication, all these communities and identities—potentially end in complete rupture. But I also recognize that the play may be pointing towards that rupture as a vital step, a break that has to happen in order to shake us out of shallow listening. Something can’t be rebuilt if we keep pretending it isn’t broken in the first place.

T.B.: I agree with the sadness and I still don’t feel like I have any concrete answers. Acknowledgment is a step that many Americans, both black and white, won’t make. They’ll deny, deny, deny until they feel good. Last night, I found myself continuously going back to this quote by the playwright Carlyle Brown. He said in an interview, “It’s interesting the way we as Americans remember ourselves, remember what our history is and what we’re disconnected to. And we’re always working the narrative so we’re coming out to being the good people. We’re not a very self-reflective culture.” I don’t think we live in a world where the majority of people honestly reflect on themselves or listen to what other people are telling them. Without that, there’s not even a modicum of chance to move forward.

S.H.: It’s funny — I’ve thought about self-reflection a lot in the past two years — god, what a sentence…

T.B.: Ha, that should be the new tagline for criticism: “I think about self-reflection a lot.”

S.H.: Well, yes, exactly! I think public self-reflection is actually one way of describing the job. Because criticism is actually always, under the surface, self-criticism. You’re interrogating yourself and your assumptions through the lens of a piece of art. That amazing Carlyle Brown quotation, though — I don’t know that I’ve necessarily considered an aversion to self-reflection (or even a flat out denial of it) as a specifically cultural phenomenon. But it makes an eerie kind of sense to me. It reminds me of another quotation—it’s sometimes attributed to Steinbeck—about why Americans will never accept Socialism: It’s because we don’t think of ourselves as a manipulated, mistreated proletariat, but as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

T.B.: Woof. To quote The Good Place, I like to think of myself as “pre-successful.”

S.H.: But that idea of a cultural story that we tell ourselves, and how it becomes an individual story — “We are the Good Guys”; “I am a Good Person.” And how that traps us — keeps us burrowing deeper and deeper into our habits, our safe spaces, our harmful and worn out policies.

T.B.: I think that narrativization (definitely not a word) operates with black and white identity formation as well. I hearken to the debate between Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) in the play about who’s “whiter.” Is it Gary, who is phenotypically black, but enjoys the comforts of a gentrified neighborhood, such as bookstores and fancy coffee shops, etc? Or is it Dustin, who’s ethnically ambiguous, but could definitely pass for white if he wasn’t yelling every ten second that he isn’t white? There are these narratives and actions associated with blackness and whiteness that prevent us individually from self-reflection. I think many of us (myself included) will come up to an uncomfortable impulse and say to ourselves, “Well that’s because I’m black, or I’m Asian, or I’m a man” — when really it’s a tangled mess of all of those things.

S.H.: Yes, a tangle and not a hierarchy. I think this is why the phrase “checking your privilege” sometimes bothers me. There can be this feeling (and I think this comes up in those lines of Dustin’s and Gary’s about being able to “touch whatever you want” if you’re white and “say whatever you want” if you’re black) that one is constantly trying to separate the molecules in the solutions that are ourselves and make sure that we’re only letting the least historically privileged ones float to the top to do the speaking. I can speak as a Woman, but as a White Person, I’d better keep quiet. Straight White Men had better keep the absolute quietest. I actually think Slave Play starts to dig into why that mandate isn’t necessarily useful: When Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan)—the white British guy who’s been so closed off and hostile the whole time—shows up in the play’s final third and tells his wife Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango)—who’s black and whose personal arc of revelation becomes the engine of the play—that he’s only there to listen to her, it’s still not real listening for a long time. It’s still a frightened, defensive mode of listening that comes from a place of, “Well, the only thing I’ve figured out is that I shouldn’t talk.”

T.B.: I think this goes back to language and how it’s deployed and from where. In actuality, “checking your privilege” is supposed to mean, “Hey, the way in which many in the world see you may have altered the way you see the world in a way that limits how you observe and interact with the world.” Somehow, it’s been reduced in practice to the dynamic you describe: “I better not say anything.” Well, just because you’re not saying anything doesn’t mean you’re listening and not just waiting for your chance to defend or say your piece. Listening is hard work. That’s why they called it “active listening” back in the day. I think it gets even harder to listen the closer you get to trauma.

S.H.: Yes. Straining for the signal inside a lot of static.

T.B.: Which goes back to the acute musical disorder that Teá and Patricia describe — the way that Kaneisha and Gary are constantly hearing a specific song. Kaneisha describes it best in the last third of the play.

S.H.: Right — the constant dull roar in the back of your head that sharpens up horribly in certain moments. The presence of ghosts.

T.B.: The presence of your ancestors in the walls, in the ground, and in your body. This will probably be a malformed thought, but history has a way of dulling the sound of your ancestors’ voices in many cases. The vestiges of your ancestors live on in often surprising ways, but when you try to go back and imagine your ancestors, it’s often mediated through your own experience.

S.H.: The first time I wrote about Slave Play, I thought about this Samuel Butler quotation: “It is one against legion when a creature tries to differ from his own past selves.” Now it strikes me that that quotation might actually contain the exact blurring of identities/experiences that you’re talking about — ancestors are not in fact past selves, but they start to blur into that. They are and they aren’t.

T.B.: We’re about to get into a quote-off, because that reminds me of a Ta-Nehisi Coates quote from Between the World and Me, when he writes to his son: “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.” I think we fashion our ancestors as past-selves, as you suggest, when in fact they were fully subjective individuals living in a past that is difficult for us to fully comprehend, but that we feel the effects of in our contemporary life.

S.H.: I know you’ve got to go! And that this isn’t a conversation that has any sort of end. But thank you. I can’t help thinking that finding antidotes for the kind of isolation we both experienced in the wake of the play is a good thing. That, no matter one’s fears of sounding inarticulate or privileged or just plain wrong, or no matter the impulse to keep processing silently on one’s own — it’s good to take a step towards tackling the alexithymia.

T.B.: I concur. Perhaps it’s the tiny optimist in my head that believes honestly working to articulate difficult concepts brings us closer to something we can do to heal on an individual level, in our relationships, and in the broader world. In all of the things this play does well, I think it’s best at eliciting a reaction to uneasy dynamics in some of the deepest, darkest, most generationally traumatic aspects of one’s psyche — and then it almost forces you to speak on it, even if it’s just to yourself.

Slave Play is at the Golden Theatre through January 19.

If you haven’t seen the show, here’s a bit of context. For more details on the show’s characters and its arc, read my review of the Off Broadway production, and then come back here for more processing.
Slave Play Nearly Demands a Conversation. So We Had One.