[nyc] SLAVE PLAY (Golden Theatre): Process this!

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jeremy O. Harris’s incendiary new show, Slave Play, open now at the Golden Theatre, is a work so rich you leave the theatre dying to process it. I went alone, so I quickly texted a friend. This friend, who saw the show two weeks before I did, had a completely different interpretation of the ending. Equally plausible, I think, but diametrically opposed. It’s that kind of play. Raising major questions about sex, race, gender, power, and consent, Slave Play cuts to the heart of the 2019 American psyche. 

It will also make you feel uncomfortable. The playbill even includes “A Note on Your Discomfort,” in which writer Morgan Parker warns, “This might hurt. This could prod open regrets and secrets, and what you find could be shock. But there’s nothing in Slave Play that you don’t already know.” What unfolds over the next two hours (no intermission) is shocking and certainly intense. 

Without giving away too much (if that is even possible), Slave Play is about the ways in which three (or is it four) black and white interracial couples have to relieve or unlearn generational racial trauma and ingrained white supremacy. They turn to a new therapeutic setting: a plantation (!) to deal with their psycho-sexual-racial relationship issues. The white partners have to face the ugliness of whiteness, while time and time again their black partners have to remain silent or support them through their own fragility. We see revelations, breakthroughs, breaking points, and oh yeah, pegging. (If you don’t already know…google cautiously.)

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is heavy, triggering stuff and it has the potential to get a little heady. (The production even has a bibliography to die for. Thank you dramaturg Amauta Marston-Firmino!).  But, Robert O’Hara’s direction is nimble and the phenomenal ensemble delivers stellar performances all around. There is enough humor to keep the audience surprised, yet the tension never breaks in Harris’ razor-sharp script. 

As a white person, I often find myself in Broadway houses with largely white audiences. My race is usually back-of-mind. The crowd at Saturday evening’s performance was slightly less homogenous than most evenings out in New York’s theater district, but it was still majority white (and over-40). I have never been made more aware of that fact. Slave Play racializes the theatrical space for white patrons.

As I sat waiting for the play to begin, I was confronted by the overwhelming whiteness of the room. Clint Ramos’ ingenious set design has a floor-to-ceiling mirror running across the stage. The audience has to see itself, our gaze reflected. What does it mean that white bodies fill the theater of a production meant to destabilize white supremacy? How can an institution as steeped in racial and class privilege as Broadway bring about social change? 

Harris provides no easy answers, and so the work (, work, work, work, work) continues. For those looking to continue conversations, the production is hosting free discussions throughout New York during the show’s Broadway run.

[Golden Theatre, 252 W 45th St, New York, NY] September 10,.2019-January 19, 2020; slaveplaybroadway.com

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About the author

Joshua Herren

Josh Herren is a writer and third-grade teacher living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Josh has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated summa cum laude in history (American concentration) and art history, with a minor in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. His thesis "Furious Acts: AIDS and the Art(s) of Activism, 1985–1993" won the Rose Award for Outstanding Thesis. Josh is passionate about education, theater, and convincing others that Philadelphia is the greatest city on earth.