I am hard pressed to think of any play from 2018 with a more politically incorrect, uncomfortable, divisive and provocative concept than Slave Play, a thoroughly academic (being steeped in queer theory, racial studies, performance art and clinical psychology) and freewheeling drama written by 29-year-old Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara (whose untamed and unpredictable works as a playwright include Barbecue and Bootycandy), which is receiving its world premiere at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop after having been developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference.
The play consists of three acts (titled “Work,” “Process,” and “Exorcism”) and is built around three interracial couples (Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris, Ato-Blankson Wood and James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones and Annie McNamara) and two psychologists (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio), who are using a historic plantation in Richmond, Virginia for the purpose of a strange experiment. (If you intend to see the play and do not wish to have any of the plot twists spoiled, I suggest you stop reading now.)
As it begins, Kaneisha (Parris), a young female slave, is sweeping up a cabin, but all of a sudden she begins dancing and grinding (twerking) to the sounds of Rihanna’s “Work.” Jim (Nolan), a white overseer, questions her over her movements and calls her a “nasty negress.” The sexual teasing between the two resembles the dialogue from what might have been an extremely distasteful porno film. But at one point, Kaneisha strikingly refers to how slave owners tried to tear away “the truth of our bodies.”
Simultaneously, very similar scenes occur between Alana (McNamara), a lustful white mistress, and Phillip (Jones), a “mulatto” slave who can expertly play the fiddle, and Gary (Blankson-Wood), a black property manager, and Dustin (Cusati-Moyer), a white indentured servant. One expects that these scenes (which do gradually lead to sexual acts) will lead to some kind of surprise or payoff, which begins when Jim says “Starbucks,” a kind of safe word, which suddenly shuts down all three scenes while they are still in progress.
Next up is a group discussion led by the two psychologists, which reveals that the prior scenes were improvisational exercises performed by the three couples, who have come to the plantation to participate in “Antebellum sexual performance therapy,” which is intended to aid black men and women who no longer receive pleasure from sex with white partners. The eight (sitting in a semi-circle) proceed to talk through and analyze what happened during the exercises. As the doctors enthusiastically talk of “fantasy play,” “psychic spaces,” “anhedonia” (the inability to feel pleasure) and “emotional numbing,” Jim (now with a British accent) argues that these activities are insane and destructive and traumatizing Kaneisha, his wife. The others are less hostile but similarly troubled by the results.
The final act (which turns out to be the most inscrutable portion) is a monologue delivered by Kaneisha to Jim in which she accuses him of being a sort of “virus” and tries to explain her attraction to this form of role play.
The experimental nature of Slave Play (which brings to mind Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon and O’Hara’s own plays) is certain to appeal to certain theatergoers and turn off (and potentially even disgust) many others. From a purely technical point of view, the play (which runs just over two hours without an intermission) could use a lot of tightening, as the scenes often go on too long and the dialogue becomes rambling and repetitive. That being said, even if one is made uncomfortable by Slave Play, one must admire the fact that it was clearly intended to make one feel uncomfortable, and thus it achieved its goal. Harris has made an ambitious attempt to explore performance, racial identity and undisclosed personal trauma in a far-out and rowdy style. Given the epic nature of his themes and concepts, his future works ought to be very interesting.