By Jeremy O. Harris; Directed by Robert O'Hara
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 1.13.19
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
by Ran Xia on 12.19.18
Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in Slave Play. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: An exploration of the black and white racial dynamic through a problematic sex play.
After the overwhelming buzz, I expected to love Slave Play. It promised a certain level of...bizarre, something I always welcome. Considering its many twists and turns in both form and content, Slave Play's three-part structure is surprisingly neat if not conventional. However, I was disappointed by the play's simplistic point of view instead of the complexity it strives to offer.
Slave Play begins with three master-slave sex scenes, or perhaps more accurately, three episodes of antebellum slave porn. With exaggerated accents and partially anachronistic costumes, it soon becomes clear that this is not simply a period piece, especially when set against a mirrored background wall (set design by Clint Ramos) in which the audience can see not only the actions on stage, but themselves as well. Adding to the surrealism are musical elements that seem to seep out of the characters’ subconscious: Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) is spellbound by Rihanna’s music, while Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) break into a contemporary dance number amidst their scene. At the height of their passion, Kaneisha asks Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) to call her the n-word; this is when we learn what is really going on.
[Editor's Note - stop reading now if you want to avoid significant spoilers.]
After Jim brings everything to a halt with a safe word, part two begins, and we learn that this has all been part of "antebellum sexual performance therapy," designed for black folk who are no longer sexually aroused by their white partners. Two researchers, lesbian couple Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), facilitate a discussion with the three couples, now in contemporary attire. The reflective session prompted by Jim’s interruption pokes fun at the carefully neutral and politically correct language familiar in such spaces, but also quickly spirals into a toxic battle between the races.
Undoubtedly my favorite section, the playwright ruthlessly rips off whatever is left of the idea that a mixed-race couple could be colorblind. We see each character break down as they discover the worst aspects of their relationship, as well as the twisted ways their psyches have been reshaped by society. In a rare revelatory moment, Phillip (Sullivan Jones), who’s always considered himself simply the "hot guy," beyond race, sees clearly the truth about his relationship with Alana (Annie McNamara), and how his blackness factors into his sexual history. In Slave Play's third part, which is more of an epilogue, Jim tries to salvage his relationship with Kaneisha after she has discovered that Jim is, because of his whiteness, "a virus."
These couples have familiar problems—a lack of listening is a common theme. What becomes problematic is that because we don't learn much about each couple, every problem gets reduced to race, and we are guided to dogmatically villainize one side. That the white characters take up more space without realizing it, and without noticing how they prioritize their own feelings over supporting their black partners—is blamed solely on racial difference. The lesson seems to be that every crack in a mixed-race couple can and should be blamed on racism, or more specifically the legacy of slavery; a relationship between a black person and a white person (or even someone who can pass as white) is doomed to fail...because of white supremacy. These points of view in Slave Play are unyieldingly binary, creating a perspective that is both simplistic and pessimistic.
I can't help wonder—is Slave Play written for a black audience, or a white audience? Is the purpose to champion agency for a black audience, or to guilt a white one? The aggressively present mirrors (more distracting than a helpful nudge towards introspection) seem to be saying that it’s the latter. But while what unfolds onstage appears to be multi-faceted, it in fact discourages any kind of thoughtful criticism. Furthermore, as someone who will never be mistaken as black or white (yet whose race has been both erased and exploited in a sexual context), this point of view quickly becomes alienating. Those who identify outside of the black-white binary may similarly feel irrelevant in the dialogue this play attempts to generate.
I recognize the importance of what this play attempts—pointing an arrow towards white supremacy by unpacking the insidious trauma black people have inherited through generations. Slave Play wants to open a Pandora's box of repressed aggression, racial prejudice, unchecked hatred, and the rest of the vicious emotions that have been caused by white supremacy. And at the bottom of that Pandora’s box is the little bug named hope, which might be released, we are told, by listening.
But after forcing the protagonists to recreate and relive some of the worst things of humanity, "listening" seems far too easy an out, hardly enough to fix what has gone wrong. Slave Play's slave fantasies are apparently meant to start a healing process in which the black partners reclaim their agency, yet I question the idea of healing solely by amplifying the negative. After all, how can trauma be cured by experiencing something bad, something that causes pain, without making tangible the requisite hope along the way?
(Slave Play plays at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, through January 13, 2019. The running time is 2 hours with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $39 - $69 and are available at nytw.org or by calling 212-460-5475.)
Slave Play is by Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Robert O'Hara. Set Design by Clint Ramos. Costume Design by Dede Ayite. Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound Design by Lindsay Jones. Properties Design by Noah Mease. Movement by Byron Easley. Dramaturgy by Amauta Marston-
The cast is Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Teyonah Parris.