Theater review by Adam Feldman
[Note: This is a review of the 2018 production of Slave Play at New York Theatre Workshop. Click here for the 2019 Broadway production of Slave Play.]
Jeremy O. Harris’s flabbergasting debut play begins on what appears to be an antebellum Southern plantation. As Kaneisha (the terrific Teyonah Parris) slaves away with a broom, the echo of a song comes on: It is "Work," by Rihanna and Drake. Soon she is grinding her booty in the air, to the arousal of her whip-toting overseer, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan). Elsewhere on the same complex, an assertive belle named Alana (Annie McNamara, that master of the tense outburst) demands unusual satisfactions from her well-favored mixed-race butler, Phillip (Sullivan Jones); not far away, a white indentured servant named Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and his black supervisor, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), strip down to their Calvin Klein underwear for a boot-licking domination scenario.
As you may have figured out, Slave Play is not a rigorous historical drama, but a—well, what is it, exactly? A satire? A sex comedy? An exploration of identity as performance, in the vein of Jean Genet? A topical political provocation? A sincere dissection of race in America? All of these things are true, but even together they don't do justice to what Harris has cooked up. Without spoiling too much about how the play unfolds—surprise is part of the pleasure—I can say that the cast also features a second queer couple, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), and that the plantation scenes yield to a sustained investigation of how modern-day African-American people experience their own bodies and desires, especially in the crucible of interracial relationships.
Performed by a choice ensemble cast and directed by Robert O’Hara—whose uproarious 2014 play Bootycandy seems like one of Harris's influences—Slave Play is funny, probing and, at times, disturbingly sexy. It snaps like a whip, and its aim is often outward. Mirrors on the back wall ensure that the audience is never quite removed from the picture—and neither is that old plantation, which hovers right above the crowd. (The clever set is by Clint Ramos; the spot-on costumes are by Dede Ayite.) Like Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview, it asks a lot of its spectators, and has a lot to give in return. Listen and learn, Harris seems to be saying. We all have a lot to work through.
New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Robert O’Hara. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.