“This might hurt,” poet/novelist Morgan Parker announces in “A Note on Your Discomfort,” right there under the cast list in the Playbill for Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play. Thanks for the heads up. This might hurt. I’ve been thinking about Slave Play since first seeing it downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop. Now it has arrived with considerable swagger and phenomenal acclaim at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, a serious work that all but precludes a critic from revealing too much about its surprises. “Slave Play is a comedy of sorts,” Harris writes in the script, signaling, “It should be played as such.” Nevertheless, fasten your seatbelts, or clench your jaw, because: This might hurt.
The first of its three intermissionless acts feature vignettes set on an antebellum Virginia plantation whose columned exterior and manicured grounds are reflected, along with the audience, in mirrored panels spanning the full width of the stage. Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), a slave, enters and listlessly begins sweeping the floor of a kitchen or day room (Clint Ramos’ set is sparse but evocatively lit by Jiyoun Chang) when suddenly Rihanna’s “Work” is heard, like a heavenly resounding from above. This inspires her to twerk. Enter Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), the white overseer, wielding a mean-looking whip and a lascivious sneer as the sight of her active rear turns him on. The music stops and Kaneisha is embarrassed, but Jim is in courting mode, of a fashion.
He insists she call him Mister, not Master, because he doesn’t own her, like “them Big House Folk.” “Well,” she says, almost sheepishly, “you got that whip, aintcha?”
The show’s title, it turns out, is a double entendre. It is indeed a play about slavery, but it’s also emphatically about play. Kaneisha and Jim begin having sex – call it rape, call it lust; this might hurt – as one mirrored panel swings open to whisk them away and another brings on a canopied four-poster bed on which Alana (Annie McNamara), pale mistress of the plantation, languishes, splayed.
“Phillip!” she calls urgently, beckoning the strapping house slave while her husband is away, “I got an itch only you can scratch!” When he appears, fiddle in hand, she insists he perform, and none of that damned Beethoven, mind you, but “whatever it is you play for all of them down there. … I hear how the negresses bray and swoon from up here.” Before long, she enthuses, “I want to be inside you!” producing a gleaming ebony dildo and proceeding to have her way with him. This might hurt.
As they disappear behind the mirrored panel, we meet Dustin (James Cusatto-Moyer), a white indentured servant moving bales of hay under the gruff direction of Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a slave who has been appointed his overseer. (“Ain’t used to seein’ them allow no nigga to run they show,” Gary concedes.) Their foreplay involves Dustin licking Gary’s boot (also gleaming and black), bringing him to orgasm, which likely doesn’t hurt but stops the show cold.
This leads seamlessly to Act 2, in which all is revealed as not the Mandingo parody it appeared to be, but a very different kind of farce. Okay, a tragic farce, but a farce nonetheless. The three pairs are, it turns out, actual, of-the-moment interracial couples whose sex lives have been short-circuited, apparently by late-surfacing issues of racism and power imbalance.
Anhedonia has led them to this site-specific workshop, called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. It’s run by Teá (Chalia La Tour), who is black, and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), who is of mixed race, jargon-spouting academics negotiating the dynamics of their own fraught situation. (I give it six months, tops.) They prod, cajole and otherwise encourage their unravelling subjects to, let’s call it, dis-integrate over the course of the weeklong exercise, which will conclude Act 3 on a deflating note of hopelessness, as if making good on the promise: This might hurt.
Neither the fine performances nor Robert O’Hara’s fleet, sometimes ingenious staging ameliorate the tedium of the middle act or make the entire premise any more credible. For all its critically purported “honesty” and “bravery,” Slave Play struck me as a bit of a sham and not quite as original as advertised. These are painful, unsettling issues, and they’ve been explored before, ferociously in the explosive works of Ed Bullins (The Taking of Miss Janey, among them), Amiri Baraka and others, and more recently in Suzan-Lori Parks’ superb White Noise (which really did hurt).
Slave Play, by contrast, is the work of a promising satirist whose cleverness thus far trumps his dramaturgy. I was more taken with Daddy, the other Harris work staged off-Broadway last season. Most of my colleagues hated that one, but its unforgiving exposure of another race-charged theme – it concerned a wealthy white art patron and the impressionable young black artist who becomes his lover – was more assured and more dangerous than this work. Slave Play earns its laughs, but not its sorrow.