A few days ago, my colleague Carlos casually asked what I was doing on Wednesday at 8pm. I told him I was free, but he didn’t expound or offer any details. Even up until the date and time, I did not know I was going to see Slave Play, and new take on the intersection of race and sexuality created by Yale graduate and playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Harris told The Root, “Since 1992, we haven’t had a revival of a black play on Broadway that wasn’t written by August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry. People don’t realize how long our history is and how many disparate questions we’ve asked in those spaces.”
I’ve gone to Broadway plays more this month than I have at any time during my tenure in New York (which is more than 12 years). A few weeks ago, I went to see Hamilton, which I LOVED. Not too long after, I was invited to Drunk Shakespeare, which was fine. But with Slave Play, I left feeling bemused, but confused, torn but triumphant. I experienced a range of emotions I couldn’t quite put my finger on, which I think Jeremy O. Harris intends: love it or hate it, this play will make you FEEL in ways you never expected or imagined before.
As the name ‘Slave Play‘ hints, the production touches on a time when Africans were enslaved in America. But instead of focus on the chains and whips, Harris hones in on a tabu subject: sexuality and the myriad ways it was undoubtedly expressed on the plantation.
The play opens up on a mirrored stage, with an imposing white plantation reflected in the background. A slave girl named Kaneisha–a chocolate woman with full hair and a curvaceous body that can be seen even under her ‘Antebellum’ style dress–walks onto the scene, and begins sweeping the floor. She sweeps, dutifully…. until Rihanna’s song “Work” jams in. And with a flash of light, Kaneisha goes from a sweeping slave to a twerking dancehall queen, raising her multilayered skirts to reveal a bandaged knee, and gathering her clothes to accentuate her round buttocks. As Rihanna cuts off, Kaneisha goes back to sweeping–Rihanna back on, Kaneisha is twerking. It was riotous, unexpected, and hysterical. From that moment, I knew the play wouldn’t be like any Broadway play I had ever seen before.
The scene ends with a white overseer, Jim, lightly harassing Kaneisha, telling her to eat off the floor…then twerk on the floor. This all eventually leads to an uncomfortable simulated sex scene. And the play continues in this vein for two and a half hours.
What follows are many cringe worthy moments: There is a big black dildo used on a mixed race man–by a white woman. Two men kiss, lick, and wrestle with each other while wearing Calvin Klein underwear. We see a man’s bare buttocks and penis. One of the final acts of the play features a rape style sex scene, that was so uncomfortable to watch that the woman behind me loudly declared that she had seen enough and that she was leaving. Call me a prude, but I was also not ready. As I look at my Playbill today, the middle inside two pages have traces of lipstick and makeup from me lifting the booklet to cover my face and my eyes throughout. Slave Play was raw, real, and uncensored.
Harris’s work boldly explores race relations through the lens of black and white romantic relationships, with many different factors thrown into the mix: age, sexuality, and the range between black, brown, and white. There is a lot of psychobabble (it turns out the first scene and others are apart of a ‘Antebellum Sex Experiment’ three modern day couples have chosen to partake in). The first hour of the play is the role play, the remaining 1.5 hours ‘processes’ what we just saw via two psychiatrists guiding the couples (and the audience) through their feelings.
Sound complex? It was. And long. And while other plays had me standing, cheering, and wiping tears from my eyes, Slave Play took me on an emotional rollercoaster so dynamic that by the end, I didn’t know how to feel.
There aren’t that many black productions that make it to Broadway. Jeremy O. Harris, who spoke before and after the play, is very aware of what this moment means for the culture and for history (he and his team are compiling a website that traces the racial track record of Broadways plays since the beginning).
It is admirable that Harris has taken his show to the top, received glowing reviews from the New York Times, and has played to full houses (last night’s audience was 800 strong and intentionally majority black). Apparently Rihanna is a fan–Harris read a few text messages she sent to him as she was watching the play a few days ago. Even she seemed shocked (yet titillated) by the nudity.
The dildos, licking, and borderline rape scenes are not for everyone. I’m all for discussions of race in creative ways. This was not my cup of tea, but it might be yours.
Learn how you can see it for yourself and get tickets at SlavePlayBroadway.com.