In the months since Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play upended the theater world (and many of our moral and historical sensibilities), moving from a sold-out run at the New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway, much has been written about its controversial narrative—some factual, some distinctly disingenuous (and some from the playwright himself). In fact, by the time we saw it on the star-studded opening night of previews on September 10 at New York City’s Golden Theatre (Zendaya and New York City first family Chirlane McRay and Dante de Blasio were in attendance, among other famous faces), we weren’t sure what more there was to be said about it—but we still had to see for ourselves (because we’re nosy like that).
Thanks to a nearly monthlong embargo, we’ve had ample time to process what we saw that night, which was as provocative and disturbing as expected, though likely not for the reasons you think. It also wasn’t due to the literal “slave play” that occurs onstage—part of the “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” central to the plot (lest you’ve been led to believe there’s some literal Sally Hemings-era twerking going on, spoiler alert: there’s not) and comprises approximately 20-30 minutes, total (we’re guessing that’s about the amount of time those who claim to have walked out actually spent in the theater). In the context of the play, it’s quite obviously farcical, but nonetheless disturbing as hell—that we’ll readily admit.
As writer Aisha Harris wrote in her review for the New York Times on Monday:
I know the prospect of seeing slavery depicted in this way is a turn off for many black people — their hesitation and dubiousness is understandable. But for 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.
Like therapy itself, the discomfort eventually births a healthy amount of revelation and catharsis, not to mention some wondrous and pivotal performances. Particular standouts are Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer, whose coupled characters, at turns, have one of the most difficult, occasionally hilarious, but absolutely necessary and emotionally wrenching conversations of the entire play.
“Spare me the word ‘conversation,’ please,” wrote the New York Post’s Michael Riedel about the play—spoken like one who is perhaps better and more regularly represented onstage. As far as I was concerned, these are the uncomfortable conversations many of us need to have—and clearly aren’t ready to.
But as a black woman watching the show unfold (who brought along a black actor as my date, to add some objectivity to my post-show discussion and processing), there was a catharsis I didn’t find in Harris’ play, despite his professed intention to write a “great role” for a black woman. While lead actress Joaquina Kalukango is both ridiculously talented and deftly navigates the very difficult material, something in this particular conversation still felt unfinished by the play’s end.
Slave Play didn’t leave me feeling angry—or, surprisingly, degraded in the least. These are very specific, often brilliant, just as often clearly absurdist archetypes Harris (a 2019 Root 100 honoree) has imagined for the stage, brought to life by (black) director Robert O’Hara. Nevertheless, while I was intrigued and entertained, I personally didn’t find the resolution I was hoping for—resolution I watched several other characters achieve during the course of the play. Theirs was deeply satisfying to me, and yet, somehow, black women fell short of getting ours—at least, in the opinion of this writer. Because even in a narrative that sought to center a black woman’s pain, an all too common question emerged yet again: When does our reckoning not come at our own expense?
Slave Play is currently in production at New York City’s Golden Theatre; tickets are available here.