“You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all,” writes playwright Jeremy O. Harris in his “Notes on Style” preface of the script of Slave Play. Harris’s is a weighted statement, hidden within seemingly typical stage notes for a theatrical production. Whether onstage or off, so much related to race, sexuality, labor, historical trauma and their intersections is portrayed in a manner to make an audience feel comfortable. This is in addition to the societal pressure for people from marginalized communities to make their personal experiences more palatable. To withhold that comfort is a significant and powerful refusal.
Denying the audience easy viewing is exactly what Harris excels at in Slave Play, which is currently running at the New York Theatre Workshop through January 13, 2019. Written by Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara, known for his own plays like Bootycandy and Barbecue, Slave Play is one of the most incisive, arresting articulations of the continued and wide-reaching influence of chattel slavery I’ve seen. In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers describes the captive body as a “point of convergence biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic and psychological forces join” (67). In Slave Play, Harris and O’Hara work together to mine this precise convergence not only locating it in the antebellum South, but placing its fraught historical trauma firmly in the contemporary era.
And Slave Play does so in an unwavering, unflinching manner I haven’t seen outside of visual art or the rigorous critical theory of writers like Saidiya Hartman or Ariane Cruz. To me, Slave Play echoes Kara Walker’s art, particularly her newer drawings, like Christ’s Entry Into Journalism, that combine her iconic and disturbing antebellum imagery with more modern references, from riot cops to a hoodie-adorned young black man’s head on a platter, to show that these are part of the same narrative of subjugation. With these resonances with visual art, it’s perhaps no surprise that Slave Play‘s set design includes a monumental lighted sign reminiscent of Glenn Ligon’s neon works. Reading “nuh body touch me you nuh righteous,” a lyric from Rihanna’s “Work,” which factors heavily into the production, this statement looms over the action onstage like a warning.
Set on the MacGregor Plantation, outside of Richmond, Virginia, Slave Play’s title can be taken literally as a play about slavery or a reference to the fetish “race play,” often related to BDSM subcultures, and the play fulfills both meanings of this phrase. The first act lulls the audience into thinking they will only see a play about the psychosexual drama on a working plantation, set comfortably in the historical past. Here, three couplings emerge: Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris), a slave, and her overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), Mistress MacGregor, otherwise known as Alana (Annie McNamara), and her mulatto house slave Phillip (Sullivan Jones), and a white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a slave that also oversees Dustin.
However, nothing is what it seems. Take, for example, the very beginning of the play, which starts with Kaneisha emerging to sweep the stage alone. While she is in period costume, suddenly, Rihanna’s “Work” begins to play. Looking up as if in recognition, Kaneisha twerks and pops to the rhythm of the beat. By introducing Kaneisha with this song, Harris disrupts normative temporality, folding the antebellum past with the pop present. And in so doing, he makes countless connections related to black women’s labor then and now, whether Kaneisha sweeping for Jim and for us in the audience, or Rihanna’s erotic movements performed in front of an often white public. With Rihanna’s repeated “Work work work work work work…” Harris evokes the emotional, physical and erotic labor expected from black women. In A Taste For Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, Mireille Miller-Young articulates, “Like sugar that has dissolved without a trace, but has nonetheless sweetened a cup of tea, black women’s labor and the mechanisms that manage and produce it are invisible, but nonetheless there.”
This isn’t the only moment in which the present, in this case, haunts the past. Phillip and Mistress MacGregor experiment with pegging with a black hand-me-down dildo (“On the night before my wedding, my mother gave me this…” she says), and Dustin and Gary wear matching black Calvin Klein briefs. These startling details allow for a moment of recognition, a punctum that punches through the antebellum atmosphere to assert that the troubled power dynamics onstage, whether Mistress MacGregor speaking of Phillip’s “mulatto magic,” or Dustin threatening Gary with lynching over his touch, may not be safely relegated to the historical past.
These anachronistic details are not only jarring, but they also complicate the traditional slave narrative, which is dangerous for audiences, particularly the mostly white audience I observed last Saturday. Though often extremely difficult to watch, nearing torture porn levels of graphic violence, much mainstream work about chattel slavery firmly secures the boundaries between what happened then from now. With films like 12 Years a Slave, theater-going publics are somewhat used to seeing black actors turned into battered, whipped, brutalized, and objectified flesh. “I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story,” writes Kara Brown in her fantastic Jezebel rant “I’m So Damn Tired of Slave Movies.” “When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed ‘important’ and ‘good’ by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.” By praising the films and enduring the violence, white audiences can set themselves apart from the white plantation owners and workers on stage and screen, feeling confident that we are firmly post-bellum.
Harris doesn’t allow for this separation. By the end of the first act (Warning: SPOILER ALERT!), Harris twists the plantation narrative even further, revealing that the interracial relationships are not actually occurring on a plantation in the 19th century, but are couples engaging in a group therapy session called “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” in 2018. Led by Teà (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), this therapy is supposedly, as Teà explains, “a RADICAL therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” By placing Slave Play in this eerie liminal space between the past and the present, then cementing it firmly in the present, Harris not only rejects the fetishization of black pain that comes in the guise of empathy in Hollywood slave narratives, but he also shows how the historical trauma of slavery affects, well, almost everything in contemporary culture. In The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM and Pornography, Ariane Cruz writes, analyzing artwork by crystal am nelson: “In rendering tangible, the tethering of black female sexuality to the history of chattel slavery, the rope connects the past to the present, but it also reveals the past as the present (and future).”
Despite the heft of its subject matter, much of Slave Play is quite funny, particularly in the second act. Teà and Patricia, in particular, present a twosome from which Harris can reveal the ridiculousness of both psycho-babble with their constant mentions of “materiality,” “processing,” and affirmations like “You are heard…I see you” and semi-impenetrable academic phrases like “white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist system” and “minoritarian individuals,” which seem absurd when recited in this group therapy context onstage.
But all the characters, and the specific dynamics of their relationships and perspectives, as determined by their proximity to privilege and white supremacy, are not exempt from Harris’s razor-sharp depiction, which is both satirical and entirely, piercingly accurate. Harris portrays Dustin, a non-black person of color, screaming about erasure and comparing his experience to Gary, his “black black, blue black, jet black, raisin black, eerie black…” partner, who cannot be anything but black in the eyes of others. He shows Alana, the white woman who speaks over everyone and gets excited about the experience of the personae of the plantation owner’s wife, and Phillip, a biracial man who cannot lay claim to his experiences of racism (“I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m just Phillip!” he announces). He also delves deeply into Kaneisha’s desire to be called a “nasty, lazy negress” by her white British partner Jim, though he refers to her (to her disgust) as his “queen.” In all these scenarios, Harris seems to be asking, as Amauta M. Firmino poses in a corresponding essay in the playbill: “What does it mean to desire or be desired as an other(ed) body?”
The third and last act sees Kaneisha and Jim talk in their bedroom, speaking about the intricacies of their relationship as a Southern black woman and a British white man within the walls of the plantation. This includes some of the most affecting description of the experience of a black child visiting a plantation, dressing up at her mother’s insistence to “look proud for your elders. You want them seeing you walking through the devil’s house unafraid of the demons that live in the walls.” In the middle of this conversation, Jim transforms back into that overseer character, eerily showing how quickly he can inhabit that role, holding a whip and placing it in Kaneisha’s mouth. While he is seemingly fulfilling her desire, the experience of witnessing this final moment treads the line between watching a rape and consensual sex. In The Color of Kink, Ariane Cruz states, “What is that fine line between a representation of a contemporary space that is consensual and a representation of historical spaces or historical traumas that were non-consensual and is it possible to kind of make that leap from a historical reading to a more contemporary reading?” This is the exact question Harris asks of the audience.
Just as Kaneisha understands in the final scene that her elders want her to know she’s “lying with a demon,” so too does the play want the audience to know their role in the legacy of chattel slavery. One way that the production does this is through the entirely mirror-covered set, designed by Clint Ramos, which quite literally reflects the audience onstage in all aspects of the action, whether supposedly antebellum or current day. Above the audience’s head, an image of the MacGregor Plantation is projected, rendering it impossible for the audience to see themselves outside of the plantation.
In an interview I did for VICE in 2014, performer M. Lamar said to me, “The plantation is still here.” And this is precisely what Harris reveals to the theater-going public in Slave Play. In the play, Jim (and for a time, Kaneisha) refuses to admit his role in this narrative, setting himself apart as a British man, a foreigner. Similarly, the audience is also implicated–no matter their identity, everyone is still on that plantation in one way or another. When Kaneisha yells accusingly, “You’re the virus…There’s no way now I can unknow as you wipe your dick across my lips that when your people landed on this land a third of the indigenous population of the entire continent died of disease. Not disease you actively gave them. Your mere presence was biological warfare,” she is not only talking to Jim, but to us. And ultimately, all we can do is see its truth. As Rihanna sings in “Work,” “I mean who am I to hold your past against you? I just hope that it gets to you I hope that you see this through I hope that you see this true.”