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Slave Play

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 9, 2018

Teyonah Parris and Paul Alexander Nolan
Photo by Joan Marcus

You've got to hand it to the talented and fearless cast of New York Theatre Workshop's latest offering, Jeremy O. Harris's Slave Play, which opened December 9 in a production as provocative as it is uneven. They bare their souls, and their bodies, in an exploration of interracial, sexual dysfunction that turns the tables on our preconceived notions of race, pleasure, subjugation and white empathy. Already the subject of two profiles in The New York Times, playwright (and sometime actor) Harris is making his professional New York debut this season with not one but two productions, the first being Slave Play at the Workshop and the second being Daddy, a coproduction of The New Group and The Vineyard coming this winter starring Alan Cumming. And all of this while he's still a third year student at Yale School of Drama. Clearly, he's got talent and has developed a flair for pushing buttons, but does the theatrical result live up to the ballyhooed hype? In the case of Slave Play, the answer is yes and no. But it's possible the problems with this production are equally attributable to its director, Robert O'Hara, himself a talented provocateur (Bootycandy and Barbeque), who doesn't seem to trust the material Harris has written and has left his editing pencil at home.

It's impossible to engage in a cogent discussion of Slave Play without divulging its plot, so if you don't want spoilers you should stop reading now. Set at the MacGregor Plantation just south of Richmond, Virginia, Slave Play is separated into three, intermission-less acts played on a set of mirrored panels by designer Clint Ramos. These mirrors reflect back not only the faces (and color) of the audience members, but also a painted drop of an antebellum plantation house that hangs above the audience's heads. The first act is titled "Work" and opens with a beautiful, black slave Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) doing a dismal job of sweeping a cabin when she's interrupted by the sexy, white overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) who's transfixed by Kaneisha's twerking to Rihanna's "Work." Jim has plans for Kaneisha and becomes visibly aroused when he forces her to eat a cantaloupe on the floor. Cut to our second couple, the plantation's white mistress Alana (Annie McNamara) summons her strapping, mulatto servant Phillip (Sullivan Jones) to play his violin for her. Phillip wants to play Beethoven but Alana wants a spiritual instead. Soon she's stripped off her heavy dress to reveal thigh-high black boots and she's sodomizing Phillip with an enormous black dildo passed down to her from her dear mother. Our third couple finds a white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) being bullied by the black foreman Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood). Gary quickly has Dustin literally licking his boots, which brings him to a shattering climax that leaves him unable to breathe.

For all three couples, the southern accents are ladled on thick and heavy. But we know something is amiss because of all the contemporary musical choices and verbal (and costuming) anachronisms. Just for a moment, we see all three couples at the same time, engaging in their heated trysting until, out of nowhere, Jim says the word Starbucks several times and all the action is brought to a halt. It seems Starbucks is a "safe word" for the three couples that are participating in a workshop entitled Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, "a radical therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from who they no longer receive sexual pleasure." The therapy is being run by Teá (Chalia La Tour), "a mulatto who is studied in her black and her white," and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), "a light brown woman who knows many lives," themselves an interracial, lesbian couple whose research has grown out of their time at Smith and Yale.

We learn all this in a second act entitled "Process" which lasts an hour but feels much longer. The three couples, each of whom have serious obsessive-compulsive disorder issues, are joined by Teá and Patricia who moderate a Q&A session in which the participants are encouraged to open up about what's happened and to get in touch with their feelings about what they've experienced during their antebellum role-playing. It's at this point Slave Play loses its focus in terms of tone and style. Harris has laid out an interested premise, but he and director O'Hara don't have the courage of the writing's convictions. In the script, Harris says his play is a comedy of sorts and wants it played as such. But here's the problem. The actors in this production are so good it feels wrong to laugh at their attempts to make sense of what they've gone through and are feeling. The second act is played as satire, specifically through the characters of Teá and Patricia, who spout endless streams of psychobabble therapy "speak" that elicits laughter. But the point of Slave Play is to give voice to the challenges people of color face living life every day in a racist world when they're the only ones who are seeing and acknowledging that racism. To frame it through satire undercuts the message. Slave Play would be an entirely different play if its second act was played seriously, instead of for comedic effect. It also needs editing, which both Harris and O'Hara seem unwilling to do.

The third act, called "Exorcise" finds Kaneisha packed to go home when Jim makes a final effort to connect with her and to understand what she needs from him sexually and intellectually. It's a riveting scene in which both Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Paul Alexander Nolan (Bright Star, Doctor Zhivago and the recent Escape to Margaritaville) do beautiful work. Kaneisha relates a childhood story of going to visit plantations as a child growing up in Virginia, including the dress her mother put her in and the advice she gave her daughter before going. At its conclusion, Jim, who has stripped himself naked, initiates another attempt at the antebellum role-playing that opened the first act. As their lovemaking spirals out of control, Kaneisha yells for it to stop and begins to sob. Jim is horrified, but gradually Kaneisha's sobbing turns to laughter and it's Jim who begins to cry. Kaneisha gently kisses him and thanks him for finally "listening" to her.

It is a shocking conclusion but what does it tell us about what has come before and, more importantly, what Harris wants us to think about after seeing his play? If the insert in the program courtesy of the production's dramaturg, Amauta Marston-Firmino, provides any answers, it's that "there is an erotic pleasure in being racially objectified" and that Americans, in particular, are still working thru their obsession with black people where issues of submission and dominance are concerned. The insert may be pretentious, but Harris's play definitely is not. But he undercuts his message by failing to address the issue with the seriousness it deserves. Laughter doesn't always make the message more palatable.

Slave Play
Through January 13
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between Bowery & 2nd Avenue
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