In the first scene of Slave Play, a provocative off-Broadway production from the up-and-coming playwright Jeremy O Harris, we see a woman dressed as a slave cleaning the stage with a broom when Work by Rihanna starts to play. Kaneisha, played by the If Beale Street Could Talk and Chi-raq star Teyonah Parris, is suddenly unable to stop dancing but stops when her white owner Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) enters. They indulge in crude porn-like banter (he tells her to eat a cantaloupe he throws on the floor) before having sex. Two similar scenarios follow, each slightly altered: a black man is dominated by his white mistress; a black man tyrannizes his white male indentured servant. This explicit interracial triptych fills the stage and is only broken when a word is yelled.
A quick scene change and we find ourselves in a different world entirely. Giving too much detail would arguably spoil the play. However, we see that even in this new world, white voices and thoughts dominate. Harris uses this shift to show that even in a discourse that is supposed to center them, black people are still talked about rather than able to speak for themselves. To convey this, the black characters, when finally given the opportunity to speak, are only allowed to deliver words detailing their personal drama. Each is afflicted with sexual dysfunction due to historical trauma. For example, Philip, a biracial character, reveals that constant racist mockery led him to reject his black identity and embrace the neutral identity of Philip, a superhuman outside of these categories. This poignant, affecting scene shows how racism forces self-elimination.
There’s excellent acting across the board but two performances stand out. Sullivan Jones’s Philip is brought to life with an equal amount of confidence and emotional vulnerability – it is easy to see how this man hides from himself. Teyonah Parris’s Kaneisha manages to go from complete subjection as a slave to fulfilling self-actualization as an architect of her own story in her final act monologue. Watching her transformation is thrilling. The proceedings are aided by clever stage design by Clint Ramos; those in the audience see themselves in mirrors for the first two acts, and in the third act the mirrors move so only the performers are reflected. The costuming by Dede Ayite serves to undermine preconceptions from the beginning of the play. We see several characters wearing garments that would not have existed in the antebellum era – Calvin Klein boxers and patent leather boots. The lighting, designed by Jiyoun Chang, throws us in and out of this period from the opening flash to the darkened conclusion that leaves open the question of whether we have left the violence of this period.
Harris, as a black queer playwright, has received not only due to the lack of voices like his in theater, but also due to the transgressive nature of his work. Slave Play seems like an attempt to put white fantasies under the spotlight. One can appreciate this attempt while also questioning its value. If the fantasies of white people are transmitted to us through film and weaponized as policy, do they need to be repeated in the theater – perhaps the whitest of white spaces? If brutalizing black bodies is, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, America’s heritage, then surely the spectacle of this destruction is one its most popular entertainments. This is the through line from Birth of a Nation to 12 Years A Slave.
The play may simply give white people yet another platform to gaze on black bodies exposed to physical and sexual violence while simultaneously patting themselves on the back for “surviving” the experience. The onstage mirrors are the perfect metaphor for the play itself: it gives a mostly white audience another chance to see themselves.
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