Jeremy O. Harris is hard to miss. On the sidewalk outside the hip Metrograph cinema on the Lower East Side, he cuts a striking figure: six foot five, in capri pants and bright-pink socks, with one cigarette in hand and another tucked behind his ear, not far from the Josephine Baker curl on his forehead. He is there to catch a 10pm showing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, but first we are meeting to discuss Slave Play, his searing, strange and discomfitingly funny dissection of race, sex and power in America. The show touched off a social-media frenzy in its brief, sold-out Off Broadway run last season at New York Theatre Workshop; now it is moving to the John Golden Theatre—which makes its 30-year-old author, a recent Yale School of Drama graduate, the youngest black man ever to have a play on Broadway.
Did you have any idea that the social-media firestorm was heading your way before it hit? No. Not at all. A big reason why it happened is that an image from the play [of a female slave appearing to flirt lasciviously with her overseer] went viral—an image of a moment that you completely understand if you have the full context of the play, but if you don’t, then you’re appalled. And I understood people feeling appalled, especially given the historical context of what the theater is and who goes to the literary theater.
But that’s a hard thing to explain in 280 characters. In some ways, I felt like I threw a thing onto the internet before the internet was fully ready to conceptualize what it means to sit inside a theater with a play—how that’s a different thing from sitting in a movie theater or sitting on your couch in front of a television. The idea that the play was reifying white supremacy—and not trying to destabilize it inside of a space that I find white supremacist, which is the literary theater world—was frustrating. One of my goals in becoming a writer was to start teaching the audiences that were around me—who were mainly people who have never seen a play before—why theater matters to me. If I could make that known before my art form dies out, at least to a small community, then I won’t be the only one mourning when it’s gone.
Part of the difficulty in trying to explain it is that so much of that experience relies on certain elements of surprise. And you don’t want to give away those surprises. The proliferation of details about the play was one of the most stressful things for me, because so many people now know what’s going to happen—and know what’s going to happen through some lens, either positive or negative. And I guess in some ways you can’t control that. But it does rob me of the chance to feel that thing that I wanted an audience to feel in the room.
Slave Play at NYTW Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus
Without giving too much away, I hope: In the early part of the play there is role-playing between members of interracial couples, and in the central couple, it does not go as hoped. In Act One, Kaneisha literally makes a fool of herself for her lover—for herself and for their relationship. It’s about what happens when one partner takes a leap and the other partner doesn’t. And how hurtful that can be. I was talking to [downtown theater makers] Erin Markey and Tina Satter, and they were like, “You have written a play about radical bottoming. This play is weirdly like a play about two bottoms where one’s being asked to top for the first time.” Their whole conversation with me was their queer reading of the play, which made me feel so affirmed. I wish people would talk more about that. It was really great.
It's a complicated question. There’s certainly a lot of limitation on the value of kink in this play. The play does not say that kink is liberatory. No one says that. The play lives in so many spaces of ambiguity. I created a space inside of the play for all the theory I read to have equal weight.
So much of the play involves investigating the way black people are represented and represent themselves. I’ve been doing a project where I’ve looked up every black play that any black person has ever written on Broadway. In the first 30 years of black people having plays on Broadway, they were writing minstrel shows. And these were minstrel shows that black people also attended. That sort of weird relationship to the dark scar in American history—and black people learning to move in and around that—is a part of our theatrical tradition that needs to be mined, unpacked and processed. We have to process all these things. They can’t just exist there and we move on. It can’t just be, “Black people are superheroes.” It also has to be black people looking at the histories we’ve inherited, performance traditions we’ve inherited, and questioning them. Even when we look at major comedic films of the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s that had black leads in them, most of those movies work inside of black minstrel tropes and tropes that we’ve passed down from slavery. Look at the major roles that black women have inherited in all sorts of different forms: The fact that Jennifer Hudson was Sarah Jessica Parker’s assistant in Sex and the City is closer in relationship to Gone with the Wind than it is to any other thing. There’s a lot that we still haven’t processed about what blackness means in culture, and that I think that Slave Play is a really exciting space to mine those things.
For me, the play gets at some of the discomfort that we feel about how we represent ourselves, or what we are perceived by others as representing. That can be constricting in a way that people who are not perceived as representing any one thing to others don’t have to worry about. Exactly. I feel that so often. Jackie [Sibblies Drury] is trying to express that in Fairview. I’m trying to express that in this. I feel like it’s a thing that’s constantly on my mind, especially being someone who matured around a lot of people who had seemingly no limitations. And me knowing there were so many rules about how I did everything in my life. That it became more freeing to say, like, Fuck the rules. I think it’s partially why I wrote a play like this. I was like, Fuck all the rules. I wanna feel free to do my own thing in my own way.
Slave Play Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus
It’s a very unsettling play, but also a very funny one at times. What does the humor add to the way the play functions? For me, humor is something that’s only possible when you’re talking about things that are real and that actually affect you. As a Southern person, I grew up in a town where you see the axis of power so obviously skewed towards white supremacy, where you can see multiple plantations when you drive to school. Black people learn how to laugh about this stuff—it’s the only way you don’t walk around weeping every fucking day in Martinsville, Virginia. The history and the horror become richer when I can laugh about it, and realer when I can laugh about it. And knowing that I wanted an audience to feel receptive to hard ideas, I wanted to shape the play so that the laughs would happen at a certain pace, so that by the moment the major tonal shift happens, you’re open and ready. We’ve all been socialized to not listen to what women have to say, or what black people have to say. I wanted to create a space where when a black woman was going to start speaking, you would not immediately shut yourself off from that discourse.
Your director, Robert O’Hara, is also a playwright, and his Bootycandy also used humor to look at questions of black identity. What do you think he brings to this project? I learn things from Robert every day. It’s insane. I have to say as well that I now feel truly in a tradition of great black makers in the American theater. George C. Wolfe discovered Robert, and worked with Robert as Robert’s career took off. And Robert plucked me up in my second year of grad school, and shepherded me into New York City. And what George probably saw in Robert was that, like George, Robert is a showman. He knows how to put on a show. There’s a certain level of always knowing exactly how to keep the engine of the play going so that even though it’s dark, even though there are ideas, it still has you by the gut. And I think that this play needed that. And that’s why it’s going to Broadway. I think the dark, downtown version of Slave Play that’s like a little bit dour and a little more serious is something that some people want of the play—and that’s a version of the play, too. But I think the version that we really like is this blockbuster, 11-o’clock-number version.
Jeremy O. Harris and Robert O'Hara Photograph: Courtesy Jenny Anderson
Off Broadway, the pivotal role of Kaneisha was played by Teyonah Parris, who was unavailable for the Broadway production. Now it's being played by Joaquina Kalukango. What stood out for you about her? She’s amazing. She was the third person we saw and she could only come out for a day. She opened her mouth and I literally jumped out of my seat. When I get excited about an actor I get so excited. Which is why it never even crossed my mind to part with the cast from New York Theatre Workshop. That’s our cast—the play makes no sense without them. But the thing about Joaquina that was really special is that she felt like the same type of freak that we had cast in the roles at New York Theatre Workshop.
At the end of the play, the stage directions specifically give freedom to the performer to own the final moment in a way that seems to goes to the heart of the indeterminacy of what the show is supposed to “mean." Yes. The play’s like a Russian doll. When we start the play, you’re watching a character in a costume, and then you meet the character and then, in the last moments of the play, the play asks you to meet the actor—because you’re at a play. The audience doesn’t necessarily know that, but I think they can feel it. The way Teyonah ended the play had a lot of people feel something—some sort of connective tissue that felt more Teyonah than Kaneisha. And I’m excited to see how people see Joaquina in relationship to Kaneisha.
In the New York Theatre Workshop production, the set involved a mirror effect that invited the audience—a majority white audience, when I saw it—to see ourselves in that mirror with the plantation in back of us. To what extent is the desired audience for this show a white audience, and how does a black audience function within that? It’s funny. White people love feeling centered in something! A lot of white people talked about the mirrors in my play as though it was about them, when really the mirrors were birthed out of the fact that when we did the play at Yale, my only request was that the play needed to feel immersive. At Yale it was on a three-quarter thrust, so the audience all had to look at each other, and this is an audience of mainly college students and mainly my friends—so the audience was majority black and brown. The minority in the audience were white people. Watching that play and watching people watch each other throughout the first and second act—seeing who laughed when—became an incredibly important part of the dramaturgy for me. It’s called Slave Play; it can’t ever stop recognizing itself as a piece of theater. So I only wanted to work with a director that had that as their main goal. The question I asked every director who told me that they wanted to do this play was a secret question—it was about if they had the gesture inside their spirit that was inside mine. And Robert was the only director to say, “Oh, we putting these motherfuckers on a goddamn plantation. I want them sitting in the middle of a fucking plantation.” That was his response. And I said, “You’re going to be my director.” Literally, that is what I told him at the end of our phone conversation. And I went back to New York Theatre Workshop and I said, "It has to be Robert. I’ve spoken to 10 directors. None of them knew that this was the thing that the play needed, and he did." We wanted to do it in the round at New York Theatre Workshop but we couldn’t. And [designer Clint Ramos], because he’s a genius, came up with a new set that would give us a sense of being in the round, and a sense of being in conversation with each other, without us having to revamp the entire theater.
What do you hope people might get out of the play? I go to the theater specifically to leave thinking about things that I can argue about for a long time. That’s my only hope for people for Slave Play. I want to be someone who’s a part of a tradition of theater that leaves people hungry for more ideas. I hope people go out and read Saidiya Hartman or read Jared Sexton after they see this play. One of the things Slave Play accomplished is that people are still talking about it actively. People are still asking me questions about it. And my answer is always the same: That’s not for me to tell you. I stopped listening to the characters after the last line was said, and I don’t think I’ll be writing a sequel.
Slave Play is in previews at the John Golden Theatre, where it opens on October 6.