One of the first hints – an uneasy moment in a remarkable evening full of them – planted in Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play suggesting that all is not as it seems (and even what it seems isn’t entirely clear) comes shortly into the opening scenario. A black woman, dressed in Antebellum slave garb, and a white man, attired in the sort of short-hand plantation overseer costume we know from Roots and any number of similar period dramas, are in the midst of an encounter queasy with sexual overtones. No, not sexual. Rape overtones – the leering, bullwhip-toting man is using every bit of his inherent power to forecast what’s coming. The woman’s exaggerated patois – she pointedly says “massa,” not “master” – is loaded with a comic, fearful exaggeration that wouldn’t be out of keeping in an old Stepin Fetchit routine.
So that’s what seems to be happening, this enactment, this horrific encounter played, improbably and uncomfortably, for laughs. Then that hint comes: The actress, fleetingly, seems to slip out of character. Or maybe the character slips out of character. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” she says, dropping, for a few seconds, the “massa” talk, causing a quick look of confused panic from her scene mate and likely some in the audience whose reflection in the mirrored stage panels has already made us complicit in everything we observe.
A similar moment arrives a couple short scenes later, when a young, especially good-looking white male indentured servant from the same era submits, in many ways, to the demands of the black male slave who has been, improbably, left temporarily in charge of the plantation. As the two unspool their own sexualized encounter – complete with racist language I won’t repeat here – the sheer, over-the-top silliness of the dialogue prompts uncontrollable giggles from the two, as if they’re old friends, or likely more, who recognize their own absurdity.
Soon enough, they – and a third couple (black man, white woman) who just prior had enacted an even more sexually explicit, racist and laugh-out-loud hilarious encounter – are stopped dead in their coitus by that now-back-onstage overseer’s shout of the word “Starbucks.” We’ve just heard a safe word, calling an abrupt, alarm-screeching halt to everything we’ve been watching.
And so the second of the title’s meanings – I count three, but more wouldn’t surprise me – becomes clear. This isn’t a “slave play” – a play about slaves, a noun – but a tale that uses, to its own provocative ends, “slave play” as a sexual term, a verb, that for all we know actually lives in the real unreal world of Internet fetishism.
And then Harris and his simpatico director Robert O’Hara – near miraculously blending their talents to pull off an incendiary work that could go wrong in any single minute of its intermission-less two hours at the Golden Theatre, where it opens tonight – add yet another meaning to the title. By now, if you’ve kept up (since the play debuted Off Broadway last year) with the reams of publicity, theater chatter and press speculation about whether Broadway is ready for Slave Play (as The New York Times recently put it), you won’t need the following spoiler alert, but alert! alert! anyway: Those three sexual scenarios we’ve witnessed are soon revealed to be a form of partners therapy designed by and for interracial couples.
Taking the stage on what, we’re told, is a former plantation now being used by two jargon-spouting therapists – themselves an interracial lesbian couple (played by Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) – are Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), that first couple we met, both now dropping their phony accents, Jim revealing a veddy veddy British tone that he uses to dominate any and all debate; Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones), she the (seeming) nervous, needy white half of the couple, he a (seemingly) none-too-bright light-skinned black man with the demeanor of the model-handsome, amiable college frat boy he recently was; and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a gay couple whose interracial status is only grudgingly acknowledged by Dustin, who insists he isn’t white despite obvious evidence to the contrary and refuses to explain his self-identification even to his quietly resentful lover of nearly a decade.
But as is eventually made overtly clear by the therapists, this experimental slave play therapy isn’t really for the white partners – or as Dustin might insist, the white-labeled partners – but rather to examine how and why the black participants seem to have hit emotional roadblocks in their relationships. The central question that these couples seem to bring, stated or unstated, to the therapy session – a long scene that generates explosive drama, applause-getting comedy and ample opportunity for each member of this extraordinary cast to take the spotlight – might be: What, exactly, is wrong with these wounded people? And more specifically, these wounded black people. What has history done to them?
I won’t reveal how the answer arrives, who provides it, what it does to each character, and most importantly, what the answer does to the question itself. And I certainly won’t promise that the play’s final half-hour won’t blast away whatever conclusion you might think it – and you – have already reached.
I’ll only note that the therapy session, for all the too-obvious jokes at the expense of the brainy therapists’ woo-woo jargon (far too easy, sometimes – the therapist characters are the only ones who seem to occasionally elude Harris’ grasp) finds a sort of success in spite of itself, if success means finding a way to demand the stating of a truth that takes no prisoners, least of all those people in the mirrors that Clint Ramos’ set puts to such chilling, shifting use. (The same could be said of Dede Ayite’s costume design, which is less concerned with Antebellum accuracy than with our shared, Hollywood-taught and eroticized fantasies of it).
It’s tempting to interpret Slave Play as using the emotional and romantic struggles of three specific, complicated couples to say something larger, more societal, more historical, yet there’s something perversely reductive in that. These couples carry society, they are history, singular yet encompassing. Make no mistake, Harris isn’t universalizing this country’s torturous legacy of slavery or holding up its African-American history as a one-experience-fits-all lesson in shared humanity. One of Slave Play‘s accomplishments is its use of a commercial Broadway production as an insistently focused examination of whatever is meant when we make reference to the black experience, and in giving voice and the last word to those who live it. Listen, Harris says to the rest of us (including, it demands to be said, white critics like myself). Just listen. Ready or not.
Slave Play, opening tonight at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, began previews Sept. 10 for a 17-week engagement. Producers are Greg Nobile and Jana Shea of Seaview Productions, Troy Carter, Level Forward, and Nine Stories, founded by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker.