Interview: Jeremy O. Harris Knows You Hate "Slave Play" ⛓️
The playwright and "NYT Least Relevant Notable of 2021" talks white supremacy, sexuality, and responses to the Los Angeles run of his record-breaking production.
It’s hard to say something new about a work of art that has been as thoroughly discussed and dissected as Slave Play. I was finally able to see Jeremy O. Harris’ highly feted production for myself three weeks ago at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and I’ve thought of little else since. Onstage, I watched a psychosexual drama play out that was simultaneously so foreign to me as to be repulsive, and so taboo as to be intriguing.
With some distance, I feel strongly that the value of Slave Play lies less in the contents of the story itself and more in the conversations it engenders and the reactions it teases out. I spent a mere two hours with Harris’ characters, but I’ve spent much, much longer reading about them, and interrogating my own reaction to their choices. But by the show’s end, I was more confused than offended. What is it about Slave Play that feels so visceral and fraught to so many? And why didn’t it feel that way to me?
Harris is a man whose reputation nearly always precedes him. From his bombastic Twitter presence to his larger-than-life television cameos, the prolific writer is a man unafraid to take up space. It’s a quality some might say is to his detriment, but may well be a matter of simple physics. At 6 foot 5, Harris doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. But in our hour-long chat over Zoom — arranged on the fly through Instagram DMs the way all the cool kids do — it was also a quality I found endearing. His willingness and inclination to fill any space he is in translated to an expansive, honest and generous conversation between artist and critic. From a fellow creative, it was a kindness.
This feature is more conversation than interview. In it, I work through my own response to the play in tandem with its creator, informing my own critical vision with assistance from Harris’ clarifications on his authorial intent. Much of it was cut for sheer length. But the basics are this: three interracial couples engage in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” at a plantation in Vermont. The feelings their “slave play” dredges up forces them to confront their relationship to race and sexuality — and what they find isn’t pretty. As Slave Play ends its Los Angeles run, now is as good a time as any to reflect on one of the most controversial plays of the season.
Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me. I’ve obviously seen the play, and I'm really glad that I did. I intentionally wanted to go in as blind as I could, so I only knew that it involved racial re-enactments or “slave play” as therapy. But after watching it — and having an idea of what both the praise and the criticisms have been — I felt that I wasn't sure I understood what you were trying to say, and therefore, I felt like I couldn't critique it very well.
As in, I couldn’t definitively say, “Well the play is not doing what it intends to do,” because I wasn't sure I understood what you were intending to do. I have my own interpretations, but part of my work as a critic is not just saying, well, “it's good or bad” or “I like it, or I don't like it,” but rather “how close does it get to achieving what it's trying to achieve?”
I mean, I think that one of the things the show has done quite well is exactly the thing that I wanted it to do, which is to spark conversation, right? [For me] there was this feeling that everyone in the north has such an amnesia about the fact and weight and complexity of chattel slavery and every part of Black identity and Black oppression that it’s kind of startling. [I felt like] the only way people around me could talk about their oppression or the history of being a Black body in America was through capital or what it meant for their work, and not what it meant to their psyches or their relationship to other people around them.
And that was tenfold for most of the white people, [who had] this utter ignorance of the histories Black people’s bodies held. And I wanted to write a play that would make people have to confront that and have conversations about that. It's a play that structurally ends before the catharsis happens. Because the catharsis leads to discourse. And so right at the moment where catharsis can happen, the play ends and then the audience takes that and makes it discursive. So instead of that catharsis happening onstage, it's supposed to happen for the audience out [in the world] when they're walking around, which is an active thing.
That makes a lot of sense to me because it does feel reflective of my own experience. I didn’t get the nice little button at the end or the explanation. And I did feel like I needed to go sit with it and interrogate it a little bit. I felt like there was no end, and that my role was to figure out what the end could or should be.
But one of the interesting things that I did enjoy is the way that the story hyper focuses on the very specific relationship between white and Black romantic partners and the ways we — because of love or closeness or familiarity — elide how that historical relationship will always play into the interpersonal dynamics. This play just makes that explicit, but I was left questioning why these Black characters felt like engaging with whiteness in this particular way was so central.
Because I kept feeling like … just break up with them. They’re not giving you what you need. I don't understand why it is so important to preserve this relationship that isn't working, where you feel like your partner is a demon and that you can't lie next to them. Because that tells me two things. One, it tells me that it's not specifically about this partner. It's about whiteness in general. And two, if it is about whiteness in general, why is whiteness so central to your identity? Why is interacting with whiteness in this intimate way so central to your identity that you can't just not do that anymore when it doesn't work for you?
That's so curious to me. I feel as though there have been relationships and spaces in my life that are imbued with whiteness, that it's felt very difficult to disentangle myself from because of a love of the medium. Theater is one of those places. But for me, it's very difficult to completely disengage from artists that I have a sort of familial love for. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I know that obsessions can build. And having any anxiety disorder can make the familiar very foreign to you. And I wanted to create a thought exercise wherein these things were exploded.
Because [I felt] them in a very real “I don't know how to quit you” very Brokeback Mountain way, when I was at Yale School of Drama and felt like I was under a complete psychological attack by white supremacy at every turn, even at the hands of other Black people. And the ways even Black people can — because of the proliferation of white supremacy can also enact on other Black people, unbeknownst to themselves, is something that I've tried to sprinkle into the play in small little ways as well.
The curious thing for me is you're talking about whiteness in terms of interacting with systems and institutions, but this play is about smaller venues. It's about the intimacies of a romantic relationship. And that's where the disconnect is for me. Because I understand not being able to disentangle oneself from institutions. It's not like tomorrow you can just go and launch a show on Broadway and not have any white people involved.
But I literally could though. In the same way that many people in the history of American theater have said, “These systems of commerciality do not work for me. They do not serve me, so therefore I'm backing out of it and creating my own space.” The Chitlin Circuit is a very great example of a Black undercommons actually. Everybody who’s doing a play off-Broadway would make a thousand times more if they were able to work in the commercial landscape of the Chitlin Circuit, or the “urban theater circuit,” if they so chose. But what you lose in that space is a relationship to the canon and a relationship to the comfort of working inside of a structure and an institution that are there because of white supremacy. It's given these places more resources than the urban theaters that exist for just Black people in smaller venues.
When you say, “your relationship with the canon,” how do you mean that? Because to me, if you've decided to withdraw from white institutions and create your own, how does that prevent you from creating work that is still in conversation with them?
It doesn't! And it's not just the white canon. Because August Wilson is in the canon, right? But it is a canon that’s sort of green-lit in many ways by academia, which is the ivory tower. And I think that it doesn't stop me, and it's why I have started producing on my own, but it is what stops a lot of us. Because those systems are a comfort. And for me, I'm saying that the play in some ways acts as a metaphor for some of those things. And if we're going back to your original question. I don't know that it is that easy to disentangle oneself from someone they have fallen out of love with, in one aspect, but are still so in love with in a litany of other [ways].
Well to switch gears again slightly, I'm curious then about the specifics of the final act with Kaneisha and Jim, because [after her extended silence in the second act] I was happy to finally be getting her perspective. But some of the lines really did bump for me. Especially the bit about her ancestors wanting her to lay with pride because they laid with demons too. And for me as a Black woman from the West Indies who is a descendant of slaves, I have a very clear understanding of the fact that when those relationships were happening, they weren't consensual.
And that's not necessarily just about slavery.
Well, fair. But it is called “Slave Play.” And that’s the context into which we’re put to meet these characters.
Totally, totally. [But] I don't know that that is the context that she is articulating. All of her elders are watching. Thinking about like what the actual histories of Black personhood in the Americas, there were a lot of constructions of femme Black male desire and sexuality, and not all of them were constructions that stripped agency. And we know that from oral histories and actual writing by Black people from the 1920s and 1930s. And I think that what that pointed to, was her recognition of some wild complexity that is in no way a denial of chattel slavery, and its complete segregation of both of the Black female body and the Black male body, and the ways in which agency was often stripped.
Okay. I follow that. But do you at least concede that the context in which those lines are heard points us to a particular conclusion?
I don't know that it points all of us to that conclusion. But again, “Slave Play” was always supposed to be a litmus test for the audience that was engaging with it. And I think that we live in a world that is too often demanding completely morally astute characters to populate the works that they are a part of. When actually, the characters that have lasted the longest and that we enjoy the most, are the ones who have complexity and ambiguities to their moralities and their sensibilities. And it's totally okay for an audience to rub up against that line wrong. You know what I mean? I think that's actually totally okay. What is more curious to me is that rubbing up against that line wrong would become a complete disavowal of who this woman is or what she's articulated.
After I saw the show, I rewatched that clip that had gone viral a while back about the white lady who stood up at the end of one of the showings and was so upset because she felt like oh, “Everyone tells me, I'm the problem.” But having now seen the play, it was interesting to me that that’s what she got from the story. Because the Alana character felt to me like gentle prodding. So it was very fascinating to recognize that white women audience members were having such a violent reaction to the story. Based on all the discourse around the play, I thought that I would have a very strong reaction to finally seeing it, but I left feeling like I had questions more than anything else.
That's funny about reactions to this play. It always makes me laugh hearing Black people say, obviously, white people love the play. Because like when I did this play off-Broadway before The New York Times saw it and before anyone knew what it was, the theater workshop’s main subscriber base was older white people. And there was a night I saw the play when 35 white people walked out in front of me and said, “This is disgusting.” Because they couldn't handle it.
I think one of the things that irks me about certain responses is when people privilege their own discomfort and decide that it means that every person that looks like them also hates the play. Cause I'm like, no, honey, a lot of people hate this. And that for me is the truth that I'd never get upset about. If you tell me that most people don't fuck with “Slave Play,” I'd be like, great! I think there's like statistical evidence to the contrary, but when people tell me that like, oh, all white people think this play is racist or every Black woman I know thinks this is a fucked up play, I'm like, but that's not true. It's just not. It's actually sort of an equal opportunity offender.
I think because I think one of the questions that I'm left with is: how does this story work? These characters are in this therapy specifically because of the racial dynamics that make up their relationship. And that in turn lends itself to slave play. But if the therapy is not slave play, and it's some other kind of reenactment, would it work? I guess I want to know is: is it that these characters just have fucked up relationships to whiteness and that is what they're actually exorcizing? Or is it just that they do have these relational and sexual issues that are inflamed by the racial dynamics, but could in fact be dealt with in another way?
I think it's both. And one of the things that I feel very deeply is that there’s so much we don't know about what has informed our traumas. Because spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the play and have gotten to this point in the interview — the therapy is not good. The play does not say this therapy works. In fact, it's saying the exact opposite. That the hypothesis these women have proposed was preposterous. But the reason that it was able to feel like it could work is because there's so much, we don't know about the flesh and how that interacts with trauma, that it should be at least explored. This play is not at all in conversation with almost any contemporary works except for maybe some theory. Dramaturgically, it's most interested in a lot of work from the 1970s and 1960s, when people were trying to understand identity and sexuality at the same time.
Well, I don't want to keep you any longer, but thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it. As someone who consumes and critiques media, it's quite the dream to be able to approach a creator with my questions and have them answered.
Yes. And if you don't mind me asking, one of the things that's been quite funny about the last two weeks has been seeing the relish people have taken in what I've found to be a deeply disingenuous engagement with my work by Ashley Ray. And it's been quite curious for me to think about how people who I think have seen the play and know the work, might come to the play with those ideas from her tweets in their head. I'm very curious.
Well, full disclosure. I do know Ashely, and I had read the tweets before I went to see the show. Having seen it now, I understand why she came to the conclusions did. I don't agree with all of them. But the nature of theater is that no one gets the same performance. So, there are nuances that she may have seen that I may have missed entirely. But I think honestly if I had not seen her tweets, I would not have been as generous with the play as I was, simply because I am a deeply contrarian person and I'm criminally nosy. And so my approach was “Well, this is what I've heard. I'm interested in seeing whether or not that's true.” And my reading was essentially “not quite.” But I also think that if I had come in completely fresh, it would have been more shocking and more upsetting to me than it was. Because I had the basics of the story, none of the most controversial parts were news to me. In fact, I think I was able to … not quite look past them, but to move through them into the rest of the story in a way that I probably would not have been able to had I not already read Ashley’s opinions about the show.
That's so interesting. That's good to know.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Slave Play ends its run at the Mark Taper Forum on March 13.
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