Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 6, 2019
Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Robert OHara. Scenic design by Clint Ramos. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound design and original music by Lindsay Jones. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Movement by Byron Easley. Intimacy and fight director Claire Warden. Dramaturg Amauta Marston-Firmino. Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, and Paul Alexander Nolan.
Forget the misplaced hype that seems to have surrounded Slave Play. It is not nearly so outrageous nor confrontational as it is purported to be. Indeed, to be so would have the effect of deflecting the kind of open discussion the play is calling for. To be sure, one of its several viewing lenses is sexual, but in this respect, Harris has already done the "outrageous" thing with another of his plays, Daddy, seen this past spring Off Broadway, in which "confrontational" included a great deal of flesh and uninhibited sexual activity. And even on Broadway, there is far more nudity and simulated sex in Tracy Letts's Linda Vista, which is opening one street away in a few days.
Slave Play is roughly divided into three scenes that flow into one another over the course of two hours without an intermission. At the opening, the audience is met with a series of tableaux depicting sexual encounters involving three different racially mixed couples: a black woman and a white man; a white woman and a black man; and two men, one of them black and one of them white. The show's Playbill tells us the setting is a plantation, and certainly the actors' exaggerated accents and Dede Ayite's overstated period costumes indicate that the action is taking place in some version of the antebellum South, though with a few puzzling anachronisms tossed into the mix.
The tone of this first section lies somewhere along the continuum between bawdy and satirical. It is reminiscent of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9, a play that examines some of the same themes, notably the assumption of power and entitlement on the one hand and the expectation of subservience on the other. In both plays, much of this is connected to personal and societal constructs of various intersections of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Sorry to spill at least a few beans here, but we soon learn that the characters are actually going through a form of couples therapy in the here and now. The plantation scenarios are a form of role play developed by two therapists, Téa (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), who are testing out their working hypothesis. They believe that black partners is such interracial couples suffer from a form of anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure, due to the deeply embedded racism that has been a part of this country since its very founding.
In the final scene, the play turns its eye specifically on Kaneisha and Jim, now back in the privacy of their room. It is a terribly intimate, and not just sexually (though there is that). Out of their struggle to reconnect with each other, two alternatives emerge. One of them is painfully sad to contemplate, a world in which can be no reconciliation for either the characters or for the races. In Kaneisha's words, racism is an unassailable fact of life, a "virus" that has been passed down from generation to generation and for which there is no cure. A second suggestion, however, is that there is one path left open. What it will take to move forward on that path is for white Americans who wish to be part of the solution to stop talking and to begin to listen, and to give up their self-congratulatory "color blindness" and begin to see.
Jeremy O. Harris and director Robert O'Hara, who has dealt with racial issues in his own satirical plays like Booty Candy and Barbecue, have handled with great aplomb the juggling of multiple themes and perspectives. Remarkably, they have achieved the rare gift of preaching to the choir without being preachy and teaching the rest of us without being pedantic or condescending. Slave Play is an altogether exceptional work, a standout among many that have addressed the racial divide.