Much to the chagrin of the many detractors who were in an uproar about last month’s world premiere of Slave Play, the controversial drama’s creator is getting the last laugh.
It’s bittersweet, though.
Jeremy O. Harris found his critically acclaimed pet project at the center of a firestorm on the heels of opening at the venerable New York Theatre Workshop on Dec. 9. Upon the reviews of Slave Play—accompanied by photos of lead actress Teyonah Parris in slave attire twerking for what appears to be her white overseer—an onslaught of outrage bubbled up on social media, on blogs, and even found itself in the form of a change.org petition calling for the production’s cancellation.
“I think it was a mix of surprised, angry, and frustrated,” Harris confessed to The Root last week. “I’ve been hit by a car before, and in a lot of ways, that’s what this feels like. And that’s a complicated and weighted thing to say [but] I know what sort of rigor I brought to releasing this play.”
Slave Play, set during present day, stars Parris (currently stealing scenes in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk), as one half of three interracial couples participating in a somewhat irreverent and definitely audacious form of sex therapy aiming to help them get through the racially related frustrations that can be found in such unions. One exercise, in particular, involves cosplay of the antebellum slavery era set on a Virginia plantation—but with the power dynamics turned on its head. Throw in a little bit of pop music (namely Rihanna’s reggae-tinged “Work”), some full frontal nudity, and sex toys as devices—and you have a stage show that has left audiences shellshocked.
The New York Times critic Jesse Green called the two-hour drama “willfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering.”
“The play’s humor catches us off guard and also keeps us open: It engages us in a mental conversation that, without a healthy sense of both the sincere and the absurd, many of us (and, yes, I’m talking about us white folks in the audience) might balk at having,” wrote Sara Holdren for Vulture.
With similar rave reviews—usually accompanied by descriptions such as “daring,” “raunchy” and “subversive”—the Robert O’Hara-helmed production has became one of the most buzzed-about projects within the theater community. It played to soldout crowds at every performance. The production was extended past its original Dec. 30 run date to Jan. 13.
In contrast, the play also became a lightning rod for some in the black community, mostly in the digital landscape where Black Twitter was actively engaged. Someone going by the name of Ashley B (who claims she’s seen the play and is aware that it was written by a queer black man) launched a change.org petition to shut the play down, generating more than 4,000 signatures.
Harris, a third-year playwriting student at the Yale School of Drama, believes that the ire was drawn from a MediaTakeOut.com story (he calls “crazy”) and a lengthy YouTube commentary served up by self-described “anti-racism strategist” Tariq Nasheed.
“Those are the two outlets that created a viral atmosphere around the play and its title, and shifted the conversation away from people’s very exuberant praise and excitement and sort of shifted it to this place,” Harris noted.
In a profanity-laced tirade, Nasheed warned his followers: “This is to denigrate our history. This is to promote gutter sex. This is to promote degeneracy with us. This is to get our history and piss on it and disrespect it. This is not honoring us. This is not satire. The white supremacists go out of their way to disrespect our history…Let’s be clear; this is a white supremacists agenda because they are the ones who fund that nigga.”
Harris, a 6-feet, 5-inch, Afro-clad, fashion forward, 29-year old Martinsville, Va., native admitted he never factored in such backlash from his own community when developing Slave Play. “Honestly, I thought that black people would give me the benefit of the doubt. I felt that if it was controversial with anyone, it will be controversial with white people in a very real way.”
“I wasn’t writing this play and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to go up at one of the biggest off-Broadway theaters in the country,’” he continued. “You don’t write a play like this and think that that’s going to be what happens. You’ve gotta feel like you just couldn’t think you’re going to produce it yourself, you know? And so for me, that was where the real surprise came from—the fact I didn’t account for the fact that people wouldn’t know me well enough to give me the benefit of the doubt, you know? Which is fair. It’s completely fair.”
Harris revealed he wrote Slave Play during his first year at Yale as a birthday gift for a friend who begged him to do it after he threw out the idea during an argument. To date, the acclaimed work is the recipient of the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, The Lotos Foundation Prize in the Arts and Sciences, and the 2018 Paula Vogel Award.
Slave Play appeared in an array of Best of 2018 lists and prompted Out magazine to herald him as “The Queer Black Savior of the Theater World.”
Suffering no fools, Harris downplays any superlatives that could even be perceived as erasing or forgetting the rich and diverse lineage of black and queer playwrights who came before him.
“I’m not interested in institutional theater,” was what he told Yale faculty members during his admissions interview, he said. “I don’t want to have a career like August Wilson, I want to do work that challenges the theater in different ways and excite audiences that don’t feel like the theater is for them, and maybe invites them into the theater and a new way because I want to tell stories differently.”
His next project, Daddy, may also fuel some flames. Produced by New York City’s Vineyard Theater in conjunction with the New Group, the play centers on a relationship between a young black artist and older white art collector. Preliminary production information describes it as: “Basquiats and Birkins, gospel and pop, and fantasy and reality collide around a Bel Air swimming pool in this deeply surreal exploration of intimacy and identity.”
“What all this has taught me is that I can’t take much of it in because most of everything that I’m seeing, and that we’re culturally engaging with is just blinded with the hyperbole, you know?” he said. “And when it comes to a play, that just seems really odd to me to begin with because why are we being hyperbolic about a thing that’s going to be around for two months and then disappear, you know?”
Slave Play runs through Jan. 13 at the New York Theater Workshop.