Jeremy O Harris, 2024
Photo: Laura Gallant

Jeremy O Harris: ‘A lot of theatre is boring. I wanted my play to be cool’

Seven years after his ‘Slave Play’ first blew American minds, his controversial hit finally hits the West End

Andrzej Lukowski

I have interviewed people better known than Jeremy O Harris. But nobody who feels more like a star. That’s not to say that the 35-year-old Virginia-born playwright, actor and producer is a celebrity in the classic sense, or even somebody who is necessarily destined to become a household name. He is basically a guy who makes pretty weird theatre! But he wears the trappings of fame well: six foot five and stylishly dressed, he casually chats about his friend Zendaya – he’s a producer on her TV show Euphoria – as we walk past the Duke of York’s Theatre, where her boyfriend Tom Holland is starring in ‘Romeo & Juliet’. Ducking into a bar where he orders a wine and a tequila – there’s something profoundly likeable about an interviewee ordering an actual drink – he’s erudite and open, cheerily mixing a fannish appreciation for pop culture with often scathing intellectualism about theatre. It feels a bit lazy to say he’d have got on well with Andy Warhol, but it’s at least notable that he’s an enthusiastic regular contributor to Warhol-founded celebrity magazine Interview.

He is also an absolute pro: having recently done his back in, he very gamely grimaces through some photos backstage at the Noël Coward Theatre prior to our chat. The venerable West End theatre is the UK home of ’Slave Play’, the explosively controversial drama that he wrote while studying at Yale University. Following a set of mixed race couples going through rampantly un-PC slavery-based sexual roleplay (that slavery as in the literal pre-US civil war institution), it was a phenomenon in the States, with a Broadway season on either side of the pandemic and notching up the title of the play nominated for the most Tony awards ever. Although his less-famous play ‘“Daddy”’ ran at the Almeida a couple of years back, the much bigger hit ‘Slave Play’ finally transfers here in 2024, seven years after its original Yale production. ‘Is London ready for Slave Play?‘ runs a UK tagline that Harris explains has a hilarious amount of shade to it

Jeremy O Harris, 2024
Photo: Laura Gallant

What is the origin story of ‘Slave Play’? 

‘Basically, it’s an idea I had at a party. It came really quickly and then I knew I was going to need to read a bunch of books. I was working at a donut shop in LA at the time, and I had just got into Yale and it became my first year mission to get all the information I needed to write that play.’

What sort of information? Historical? 

‘It was less so the historical and more so the theoretical. Like, you know, I read LH Stallings’s “‘Funk the Erotic’’’, I took Tavia Nyong'o’s performance class which was incredible, I worked really hard on understanding just like the rules of Aristotle because I’d never really engaged with realism before.’

A lot of theatre that’s celebrated is really boring

Was the fact ‘Slave Play’ is obviously fairly provocative an issue at all?

‘People knew me and they knew my taste. The first play I wrote for school was called “Water Sport or Insignificant White Boy”. It's about an imagined brunch between James Baldwin and Robert Mapplethorpe and there’s literally piss play in it. So they know that you have these interests that are outside of normative lines. ’

Was being entertaining a concern?

‘I wanted it to be cool. A lot of theatre is boring. A lot of theatre that’s celebrated is really boring. A lot of my friends are in the world of music and fine art… I mean I have a lot of chef friends, they don't see theatre because theatre is boring. And for me theatre was Debbie Tucker Green and Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane and also [avant-garde Italian director Romeo] Castellucci and (La)Horde the dance company from Paris. I was like, how can I mix all the elements of the things I like about theatre so that my friends will see that it's exciting?’

It went to Broadway in short order – was there any hesitation for you? You’ve been outspoken about inaccessible prices there and tried to get lower ones for ‘Slave Play’.  

‘For me it was a no brainer. Before Yale I was basically homeless. When I came to Yale I didn't have enough money to pay for my apartment. I worked on this play for three years. I worked on ‘“Daddy”’ for four years. I think I made a total of like $12,000 for both of them off-Broadway. And if Slave Play went to Broadway, I'd immediately get a $45,000 advance check. A no brainer. But I'm sort of a Broadway-West End supremacist in a way. I think we should be taking more risks on more young playwrights with interesting plays because that's the only way we'll stop all of the best writers from going straight to TV and film.’

You're pretty famous for a playwright. Did you expect that to happen? Did you invite that?

‘That was a conscious choice. When “Slave Play” was first happening I didn't want to tell people what happened in the play. Everyone was like: you had to sell the play. I was like: why don't we just sell me? And by selling me, it helped sell the play.

The West End, then. It’s been using the tagline ‘Is London ready for ”Slave Play”’? Is that because the Brits might not get it or understand the history?

‘I mean, it’s a British story, the story of slavery is not uniquely American, especially not chattel slavery. For me there is no difference between America’s history of slavery and Britain’s history of slavery. You go to Manchester, you see all the old cotton buildings, you read about what was happening there to make cotton a thing…

‘But the question of why ”Is London ready?” the tagline – that has nothing to do with any of that. That was me being a bitch. The play was supposed to happen somewhere else. And the artistic director of that theatre, the day before we were supposed to announce, said that they didn't want to announce the play anymore because they spoke to three groups of Black people and the consensus was that London was not ready for “Slave Play”. And I took that as a challenge and not a warning. ’

If I gave you a fucking beer bottle and said it was a play, you might want to produce it

The cast is a mix of original US actors and new Brit and Irish ones, how did that come about?

‘We did ask the entire US cast, but the problem was that they're all so busy. But because of that  there was this amazing opportunity to be a half and half. It's interesting to have a mix of very veteran and very new. And like, this cast is so amazing. They're all in Kit [Harington]’s room right now watching the Euro Cup.’

You came up with Black Out Nights, wherein plays written by Black playwrights attempt to have a night or two reserved for Black audience members only. The idea has proven popular but over here there was a degree of backlash to the point it got talked about in parliament. Have they been controversial in the US at all?

‘Canada got upset about it and you guys got upset about it. America I don't think has ever gotten upset about it.’

Were you disappointed in us?

‘I was just annoyed by it. It was a waste of time.’

You’ve been very busy since ‘Slave Play’ broke big but there’s not been a new Jeremy O Harris play for a long time. Are you just too busy with your other interests?

‘I've written a lot. I had another play announced that didn't happen [‘A Boy’s Company Presents’, which got gazumped by the pandemic]. But I think that getting produced is political and that is why I started producing other people's work. I wanna use the capital I have access to support playwrights I don't think are being supported. So some of my other work is sitting on desks and being overlooked because they’re, like: Jeremy will be fine. I’ve never done a play that hasn’t sold out. I feel like I'm well known for a playwright. So one would think that even if I gave you a fucking beer bottle and said it was a play, you might want to produce it, but a lot of these people would rather be spiteful than have an audience.’

You’ve spent a lot of time in London after being stranded here in the pandemic and then choosing to stay on – how long was that for? 

‘I was here for like seven months. I'm a Gemini rising so I'm very mutable. I can vibe out anywhere I am, and I have a lot of friends here.‘

How do you feel about London generally?

‘I really like parts of London a lot. I like my community in London a lot. I hate travelling in London, it's really hellish to get to places because it's like a collection of little villages, it’s like LA. And Soho is the only place you can get something to eat after 11 pm. Even Paris stays up later than London and Paris is full of people who don't like working.’

‘Slave Play’ is at the Noël Coward Theatre until Sep 21. Buy tickets here.

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