Note: Review contains spoilers
“Slave Play” creator Jeremy O. Harris has become the golden boy of theater. Out labeled the 6-foot 5-inch Yale Drama School graduate “the queer Black savior the theater world needs.” In the New York Times, Tarell Alvin Mcraney, “Moonlight” co-writer and chair of Yale’s playwriting program, called Harris “a supernova star that consumes everything around them and metabolizes a new energy.”
With his penchant for gender-bending high fashion, the only thing eclipsing Harris’ persona is his provocatively titled “Slave Play.” Predictably, the name and the racially charged BDSM themes of the play have elicited strong reactions.
On the one hand there is theatergoer Ashley B who started a change.org petition titled “Shut Down Slave Play.” “I wanted to verbalize that this was one of the most disrespectful displays of anti-Black sentiment disguised as art that I have ever seen,” she wrote in the description. “As a Black woman I was terribly offended and traumatized by the graphic imagery mixed with laughter from a predominantly White audience.”
On the other hand there is “What It’s Like to See ‘Slave Play’ as a Black Person” by New York Times opinion writer Aisha Harris. She first saw the production at a special performance for Black people and then watched it again with a standard, predominantly White crowd. Her verdict: She understands Black people’s “hesitation and dubiousness” but concludes that “those of us who choose to endure it, we might just find a new way of living in that uncomfortable space, and reimagine the possibilities of what theater can give us.” (This is not to mention a nod from Roxanne Gay and attendance by luminaries such as Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Sondheim, Kehinde Wiley, Janelle Monáe and Rihanna, whose song “Work” is featured.)
I’ve seen “Slave Play” at its off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop and then on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre. I expected far more from a play so polarizing, but I spent most of the two-hour, intermission-less Broadway version listening to the same variation of “White people are terrible” with nothing else going on.
The play opens with Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), who is dressed like Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” twerking to “Work” and eventually eating off the floor to arouse Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), her White husband playing an overseer called Mista Jim. The psycho-sexual shenanigans end when Jim, disgusted by Kaneisha’s request that he call her a “nasty negress” during sex, uses his safe word to stop the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Alana (Annie McNamara), depicting a slave-owner, commands her handsome “mulatto” houseman Phillip (Sullivan Jones) to play devilish race music on his fiddle before sodomizing him with her grandmother’s sizeable black dildo.
Next, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), portraying an indentured servant, and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), in the role of an enslaved Black overseer, grapple with each other over who outranks whom until both are stripped down to their briefs. Then Dustin licks Gary’s boots until Gary has an orgasm and bursts into tears.
While the Broadway version of “Slave Play” is visually identical to its downtown run, Kalukango replaces Teyonah Parris as Kaneisha and the entire cast uses a zanier performance style. During the show’s original incarnation, it was unclear whether the characters were play-acting in the opening sequence or if the show was just antebellum porn. Director Robert O’Hara, who is Black, dispels that confusion by having the actors signal that their characters are making it up as they go along. This transforms the opening 30 minutes of sexual debasement into supposedly harmless, klutzy humor.
What follows is a 60-minute counseling session where we learn that the couples are participating in a (fictional) therapeutic method called “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” The treatment was created by Black psychologist Teá (Chalia La Tour) and her White partner, Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), to treat the sexual anhedonia—the inability to feel pleasure—that our Black protagonists feel toward their White partners.
The patients believe that they are part of a cutting-edge, medically accepted treatment. But we later learn that Teá and Patricia devised this method to work out their own anhedonia and that they are using the three couples to collect data for a research paper.
This reeks of the Tuskegee Experiment in that the researchers instigate abuse of their subjects for their own research purposes. That the couples don’t care that they were lied to is just one of many lazy contrivances that Harris deploys to advance his plot at the expense of logic. The playwright would rather have his researchers use absurd academic jargon to lecture about Whiteness as the root of all trauma than to tie up the holes in his plot.
During his talk therapy, Dustin goes full Rachel Dolezal in response to Gary asking, “If you are not White, then what are you?” Dustin all but hisses, “I refuse to dignify that with a response.” Stung, Gary has an epiphany and reveals that after 10 years of feeling dismissed as if he were lucky to have Dustin, their relationship is over. Watching a Black man righteously rip into an abusive White partner feels great until you realize that it was Dustin who grudgingly went through days of the unethical therapy. This included transporting bales of cotton for two hours at his lover’s demand.
Beyond his refusal to own up to his Whiteness, all we know about Dustin is that he is a broke actor who enjoys mocking Gary’s bougie tendencies. Gary likes to insinuate that Dustin is racist because he does not want to live a mile away from the nearest subway line.
While both men are equally obnoxious, the dissolution of their relationship feels too easy. If Gary and Dustin don’t care enough to work it out, why should we care at all? Instead of exploring their class differences or further developing their characters, Harris buries their relationship as doomed to fail because, racism.
Moving on, we find Phillip believing that his biracial identity allows him to transcend labels such as “Black” or “White” while Alana is the Beckiest Becky who ever did subvert a Black man to her beck and call. They began their relationship in a threesome with Alana’s ex-husband, who liked to watch them have sex. Because the ex was objectifying him as a Black man, Phillip was able to get off.
As part of his epiphany, the once passive Phillip realizes that he can’t get an erection because Alana only sees him as her race-less “Little Phillip.” But Harris skips over how Alana is still objectifying Phillip, and the script doesn’t explore how their normal sex life mirrors their therapy beyond him stating that he needs racially charged sex to feel Black.
Listening to these oversimplified confessions delivered by walking stereotypes in nonstop monologues feels artificial. I found myself timing the number of minutes that crawled by while the actors stood around looking enthralled by these random acts of deus ex machina. The first time it happened, I giggled at what I thought was Harris making fun of bad theatrical conventions. Then I realized that this was his way of avoiding character-driven dialogue.
Though “Slave Play” presents itself as satire, and broad strokes are de rigueur, Harris’ flagrant use of improbable plot points betrays the genre. His habit of showing one side of a discussion to the exclusion of anything else leaves the audience with a portrait of Black people who can only define themselves through their White romantic partners.
In the end of “Slave Play,” we find dark-skinned, full-figured, afro-wearing beauty Kaneisha at home with White British Jim. She is angry that during treatment he refused to violate her while spewing racial slurs. Though we are told—but never shown—that Kaneisha is a skilled writer, she can’t seem to articulate why she is infuriated. She rolls her eyes when Jim says he sees her as his “Queen”* but never gets around to explaining why she needs to experience racial denigration in the first place. Instead of getting at the heart of what drives Kaneisha, her manufactured epiphany consists of her declaring Jim a virus, similar to European colonizers of this country whose germ-filled existence killed a third of the original inhabitants. Kaneisha’s epiphany doesn’t grant her a better understanding of herself. Instead, Harris has her play a slave to a man she no longer cares about.
During a final, 12-minute monologue Kaneisha talks about their initial courtship, her childhood field trips to a plantation, and feeling protected by the spirits of her ancestors. Jim listens, and it looks like they are finally getting somewhere until he misreads the social cues and takes on his Mista Jim persona.
Manhandling and verbally assaulting his wife, Jim pulls out a whip. He requests and receives a nod to proceed, places the handle of his whip in Kaneisha’s mouth, holds her down and begins raping her. Kaneisha stops the attack with her safe word. Then she stands up, gasps, leans against a wall, sits on the bed, laughs, and calmly tells the now-vomiting Jim, “Thank you. Thank you for listening to me.”
With these final words, “Slave Play” strips the darkest-skinned Black woman onstage of agency by reducing her fetishes and desires to subservience.
Kaneisha, like all of the play’s characters, is nothing more than Harris’ mouthpiece for his inconsistent opinions on race. This would be fine if Harris didn’t insist on having it both ways—as an arbiter of language and a purveyor of abuse.
There is an alternative take on these proceedings, that the Black protagonists have used this therapy to break up with their White partners by painting them all as villains. In a send-up of contemporary race dialogue, it’s the White people who are being gaslighted when they are told that defending themselves makes them Whitesplainers. In this and many other ways, “Slave Play” just feels like provocation for the sake of titillation.
Juan Michael Porter II has contributed to Time Out New York, HuffPost, Movement Research, Dance Enthusiast, TDF Stages and Ballet Review. He is the dance critic in residence for Broadway World.
*Piece has been updated since publication for clarity,