Broadway promotional poster
|Written by||Jeremy O. Harris|
|Date premiered||November 19, 2018|
|Place premiered||New York Theatre Workshop|
Slave Play is a three-act play by Jeremy O. Harris. The play is about race, sex, power relations, trauma, and interracial relationships. The play follows three interracial couples undergoing Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy because the black partners no longer feel sexual attraction to their white partners. Harris originally wrote the play in his first year at the Yale School of Drama, and it debuted on a major stage on November 19, 2018, in an off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop staging directed by Robert O'Hara. It opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre on October 6, 2019. In 2019, Slave Play was nominated for Best Play in the Lucille Lortel Awards, and Claire Warden won an Outstanding Fight Choreography Drama Desk Award for her work in the play. The play has been the center of controversy due to its themes and content.
The first act, "Work", begins at McGregor Plantation, a southern cotton plantation in pre-Civil War Virginia. The first act chronicles three private meetings of three interracial couples, each of which ends in sex. The play begins with the song "Work" by Rihanna playing in the McGregor's overseer cottage.  The first character introduced is Kaneisha, a slave. She begins to twerk to the song when Jim, an overseer, walks in holding a whip. Jim proceeds to comment on how unclean the room is, and questions Kaneisha on why she did not clean it better. He then throws a cantaloupe on the ground, calling it a watermelon and asking Kaneisha to eat it. After Jim cracks his whip, Kaneisha begins to eat the cantaloupe off the ground in a dog-like manner. While she is eating off the floor, she begins to dance again, which confuses Jim, but also arouses him. Overseer Jim then initiates sex with enslaved Kaneisha. Jim places Kaneisha's hands on his erection, and he proceeds to perform cunnilingus while she asks to be called a "nasty, lazy negress."
The scene then transitions to the boudoir of Madame McGregor, the wife of Master McGregor. Madame McGregor, or Alana, calls upon Phillip, her mulatto servant. Alana asks Phillip to play the fiddle. Phillip begins to play Beethoven's Op. 132. Alana stops him, calling European music boring, and asks him to play 'negro' music (19-20). Phillip begins to play the song "Ignition" by R. Kelly on his fiddle. While he plays, Alana begins to dance suggestively, and she jumps on top of Phillip and begins grinding him. She starts to say that she is under Phillip's mulatto spell, and that she wants to be inside of him (22). She then uses a dildo to penetrate him, asking him if he likes being in the woman's position. Phillip replies that he is unsure. 
The audience is then introduced to the last couple in the McGregor's barn. There, Dustin, a white indentured servant, and Gary, are together. Gary is in charge of Dustin. While resting, Gary begins to taunt Dustin, especially with his status as an indentured servant. Gary finds it humorous how he, a black man, is in charge of a white man. Gary and Dustin fall into each other in a bale of cotton. Gary proceeds to kick Dustin down, where he asks Dustin to dust his boot. Gary begins to call Dustin the nickname Boot Dustin, where he tells Dustin that because he is an indentured servant, he is lesser than other white people. The song "Multi-Love" by Unknown Mortal Orchestra begins to play overhead. Dustin fights with Gary before they engage in sexual intimacy. Dustin licks Gary's face, and begins to grope Gary. Dustin eventually kisses Gary, and Gary asks him to get on the ground, hinting that he is asking Dustin to perform oral sex. When Dustin lowers his face to Gary's crotch, Gary places his boot in Dustin's mouth, causing Gary to have an orgasm, and then starts crying.
The play shifts back to the other couples, where Phillip keeps playing music that Alana does not like on his fiddle, and Kaneisha and Jim are engaged in doggy style sex. Kaneisha is beginning to near orgasm when Kaneisha asks to be called a "negress." Jim begins to call Kaneisha a negress, but near Kaneisha's orgasm, he stops. Jim then transitions in a British accent and then tells Kaneisha that he is not comfortable calling her a negress. Jim uses the safeword, which is Starbucks.
All of a sudden, new characters in modern clothing, Patricia and Teá (also of different races) come into the room. They recommend for everyone, all six characters, to meet back at the main house soon. By the end of the act, it is revealed, or the audience is told, that in reality the characters are modern couples participating in a role-playing exercise meant to improve intimacy between white and black partners.
The second act, "Process", is dedicated to a group therapy session among the three couples. The two speak through using affirmations and academic jargon for most of the session. It is revealed that they are on Day Four of the therapy. Teá states that the therapy is meant to treat anhedonia, or the inability to experience sexual pleasure. Day 4 focuses specifically on fantasy play. Dustin begins by noting how Gary came (something he could not do before), though Gary rebounds by saying that Dustin was uncomfortable in making his whiteness hypervisible.
Alana then jumps in and begins speaking about how she enjoyed playing the role of mistress, and asks Phillip if he enjoyed it too. She notes how Phillip got an erection when he has had trouble before. Jim keeps interrupting people with laughter, and Teá asks him to unpack his thoughts and emotions, especially since he was the one who said the safe word.
Jim is confused and overwhelmed by the therapy. Teá clarifies, stating how the therapy is titled Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. She notes how the therapy was designed to help black partners feel pleasure again with their white partners. Jim is uncomfortable with playing the role of the slave overseer and finds the experience traumatizing for him and his wife, which frustrates Kaneisha. He begins to point out how he feels like he is ruining his relationship with Kaneisha, even while he keeps talking over her desires and shaming the other participants. Kaneisha then voices how she felt betrayed.
After Patricia and Teá read back to the group what they said, Alana points out how mostly white men are speaking, and Dustin proclaims that he is not white. Dustin and Gary get back into an old feud about Dustin wanting to move into a more gentrified neighborhood. Their dialogue showcases interracial relationships between gay couples, and how Dustin does not see his own whiteness, and by self-identifying as not-white he erases Gary.
Patricia and Teá, then, begins to explain the origins of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy in treating anhedonia. The two of them shaped it as their thesis together at Smith and Yale. Patricia, who keeps talking over Teá, explains how they are a couple. They state that anhedonia is caused by racial trauma, passed down through history. They explain that black partners not being able to orgasm in sex with their white partners is because of "Racialized Inhibiting Disorder." They mention how Teá experienced anhedonia with Patricia, and it was through fantasy play that she worked out her race trauma. We learn that, with Teá's background in black feminism and queer theory, and Patricia's background in cognitive psychology, that they are foregrounding the study through their academic background and experiences in their own relationship. They mention a list of symptoms associated with Racialized Inhibiting Disorder, like anxiety and musical obsession disorder.
Phillip brings up how none of his partners are able to see him as black, and that he struggles with being mixed race. Gary then asks about why music was playing during the fantasy play. Teá responds on how they did not play music during the play, and that certain people have relationships between their race and particular songs. Kaneisha then brings up how she felt in control during the fantasy play, and how Jim took that away from her when he used the safe word, and Gary agrees with her, though Phillip does not. It is revealed that Phillip and Alana met because her ex-husband had a cuckold fetish, and that when he was with her under those pretenses, he felt sexually excited because he was viewed as black. Now, though Alana keeps saying it had nothing to do with race, he is in a relationship with Alana and feels like he is not raced anymore. Alana breaks down, and Gary confronts Dustin, asking why he always says he is not white. Gary says that he does not know why he is there anymore, and he and Dustin almost get into a fight before Patricia and Teá break it up.
Jim starts to read something he wrote on his phone. He does not understand why Kaneisha looks at him with disgust, nor does he know what he is supposed to do about it. Kaneisha validates what he says, calling him "a virus." She tells him that he does not listen to her, and she now that the problem in their relationship is not in her, but in Jim's race. She refers in particular to the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by European colonialists. She confronts Patricia and Teá, saying they are wrong with their theorizations of black desire.
The act ends with "Work" by Rihanna playing again over the speakers.
In the third act, "Exorcise", the focus shifts back to Jim and Kaneisha. Kaneisha is seen packing in a room when Jim comes in. Jim and Kaneisha talk through their feelings about the therapy, and recount how they met. Moreover, Kaneisha reflects on her childhood, specifically on having to visit plantations her whole life through school field trips. She tells him that she fell in love with him, a white man, because he was not American. Jim begins to initiate foreplay when Kaneisha says that the relationship went downhill three years ago (this is when she stopped feeling sexual pleasure). It was then that she began to recognize Jim's whiteness and power, even though he did not. She states how reading about Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy made her feel sexual again, and Jim pushes her down. Jim returns to his overseer role and orders Kaneisha to have sex with him, until she says the safeword and they stop. Kaneisha thanks Jim for listening.
Slave Play deals with the themes of race, sex, power relations, trauma, and interracial relationships. Lapacazo Sandoval has written about how the play provides a real look at racism in America, especially in how racism persists even past the abolition of slavery. The play, then, attempts to uncover current racism and microaggressions through the lens of slavery. Aisha Harris further writes how the play "bluntly confronts the lingering traumas of slavery on black Americans." Through using psychoanalysis as a reoccurring theme in the play, Jeremy O. Harris shows how slavery still impacts both the mental states, and the relationships, of black people in the present. By staging a conversation between slavery and the present, the play uses the theme of time and history to depict how the trauma of slavery persists. As Tonya Pinkins writes, racism does not have a safe word in the play, and throughout the narrative, white characters are forced to recognize their historical and social locations in relation to their partners. For example, the play dwells on the impact of black erasure in interracial relationships. Throughout the narrative, the white partners are incapable of recognizing, or naming, their partners race, rather it is because of guilt, or because they get defensive. By placing sex and racial dynamics in juxtaposition through the Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, the play makes whiteness, and white privilege, hyper visible in interracial relationships. Soraya Nadia McDonald points out how the play works to uncover racial innocence. Racial innocence is the concept that white people are innocent of race, and therefore they are racially neutral. By placing the white characters in the position of the master, the mistress, or the indentured servant, the play makes whiteness visible to the white characters.
Author Jeremy O. Harris has said that he wrote Slave Play during his first year at the Yale School of Drama. (Harris graduated in 2019.) In October 2017, a production of Slave Play was presented at the Yale School of Drama as part of the annual Langston Hughes Festival.
The play was announced for the 2018-2019 season of the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) and was taken into the development program of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Later that month, Robert O'Hara who had known Harris since his brief studies at De Paul University and was one of his teachers at Yale, was announced as director. At the end of July 2018, the first public reading of the work was held at the conference.
Previews of the production at NYTW, under the patronage of the production company Seaview Productions, began on November 19, 2018. Due to high demand, the duration of the show's run was extended before the official December 9 premiere, with the final performance being postponed from the original closing date of December 30, 2018, to January 13, 2019. Over the next two weeks, tickets for all performances sold out.
On September 18, 2019, the play ran and hosted a Broadway Blackout night where the audience consisted of only black identified artists, writers, or students. The play began its Broadway run at the John Golden Theatre in October 2019. The play is set to run for 17 weeks, from October 6, 2019, to January 19, 2020. Harris and his team has promised that 10,000 tickets would be sold at $39 in an effort to diversify the crowd.
|Kaneisha||Teyonah Parris||Joaquina Kalukango|
|Jim||Paul Alexander Nolan|
|Teá||Chalia La Tour|
|Patricia||Irene Sofia Lucio|
Reception to Slave Play has been polarizing. Due to themes revolving around sexuality and slavery, reviewers have either defended the play or criticized it. In particular, O. Harris believes that making a play palatable would be buying into respectability politics, and reviewers such as Tim Teeman and Soraya Nadia McDonald have noted how Slave Play's explicit nature is utilized to critique racism in the United States.
There have been petitions to shut down Slave Play because of its themes. In particular, audience members and writers have criticized the play for its treatment of black women characters, and voicing how it disrespects the violent history of rape in chattel slavery. In 2018, a petition was started titled "Shutdown Slave Play," with the petitioner describing the play as traumatizing and exploitative of human atrocities. Critic Elisabeth Vincentelli noted the similarities between the themes and style of Slave Play and those of the plays An Octoroon (2014) and Underground Railroad Game (2016).
Despite the controversy, many reviewers have met the play with acclaim. Peter Mark describes the play as funny and scalding, while Sara Holden writes how Harris manages to make every character an archetype while at the same time making them have depth. Positive reviews of the play herald Slave Play as both confronting racism and unpacking the nuances of interracial relationships, while citing it as comedic and entertaining. Aisha Harris wrote about the experience of seeing Slave Play as a black woman, stating that the uncomfortable narrative of the play allows for productive thought.
Other reviewers, though, have reviewed the play negatively. Thom Geier reviewed the play as intentionally designed to provoke, and calls the play uneven. Juan Michael Porter II, a black theater writer, reviewed the play as being consisted of oversimplified confessions meant to titillate the audience.
34th Annual Lucille Lortel Awards
2019 Drama Desk Awards