Friday, December 14, 2018

134 (2018-2019): Review: SLAVE PLAY (seen December 13, 2018)

"Sex, Slaves, and Racial Hangups"

Given the rising prevalence of alley staging, as it’s sometimes called, the first thing that struck me on entering the New York Workshop Theatre to see Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, was that the space had been divided by innovative designer Clint Ramos in two so that the stage was a platform between two facing sets of bleachers. 

Teyonah Paris, Paul Alexander Nolan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A moment later I realized I was looking at only one set of bleachers, the one I was sitting in, reflected in a mirrored wall, reminiscent of the original sets for Cabaret and A Chorus Line, among others. Thanks to my baseball cap, I even found myself in it. Looking more closely, I noticed the reflection of a painting of a plantation situated on the wall behind me. It’s the kind of effect sometimes used to implicate the audience in a play’s ideas.
Paul Alexander Nolan, Teyonah Paris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Whether that’s the purpose here is hard to say—I never felt personally connected to what was being shown—but the highly touted Harris’s award-winning Slave Play is certainly a play of ideas, particularly with regard to the subject of identity politics, which seems to preoccupy every other upcoming dramatist. You may or may not agree with Harris (a Yale playwriting student who describes himself as “Tall, lanky, queer, and black” and is here making his Off-Broadway debut) but it’s likely he’ll give you something to talk about afterward if you see it with someone else. 
Teyonah Paris, Paul Alexander Nolan. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It begins with three successive scenes set in the antebellum South, at the MacGregor Plantation near Richmond, VA, each dealing with interracial sexual relationships. In the first, a beautiful young black woman, Kaneisha (Teyonah Paris, If Beale Street Could Talk), fitfully sweeps the AstroTurf-covered stage before her sexual impulses get her to twerking to Rihanna singing “Work.” Its words, “nuh body touch me you nuh righteous,” line the top of the mirrored wall. When the whip-carrying, white overseer, Jim (Paul Alexander Noble, Welcome to Margaritaville), sees this, the pair act out the sexual dynamics of their situation. 
Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In the second, for which a fourposter is rolled on through doors in the mirrored wall, Alana (Annie McNamara), the white mistress of a plantation, seduces her handsome, violin-playing (Beethoven), reluctant black slave, Philip (Sullivan Jones). Here, the dynamics have to do with a dark brown dildo, although not in the way you might at first imagine.
Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The third switches to Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a black slave who holds sway over a white indentured servant, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer). Now, the shifting power plays involve the men’s homosexual attraction.
Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Each scene uses period costuming (by Dede Ayite) combined with anachronistic elements—like Alana’s thigh-high, vinyl boots or Gary and Dustin’s brand-named underwear—as well as contemporary language and music, and each ends in an aggressively passionate sexual act. Those, regardless of what you may have read, may be provocative but they’re still far more suggestive than explicit. The movies do this kind of thing better. 
Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s no longer a spoiler to reveal that what we’ve been watching has been three couples—each with one black and one white partner—working out their intimacy problems by role-playing on the fourth day of a weeklong, experimental, Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy Workshop. Running the repetitious talkfest is a lesbian couple, the white Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) and the black (but fair-skinned) Teá (Chalia La Tour).
James Cusati-Moyer, Ato Blankson-Wood. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Teá and Patricia, speaking in faster-than-a-speeding-bullet technobabble, explore, explain, and interrogate (with sharply satirical undertones)—“process” is the operative word—each couple’s sexual dysfunction, diagnosed as anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure). They believe that all such interracial bedroom problems can be traced back to racially negative tendencies based on premodern attitudes. The therapy is “designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.”  
James Cusati-Moyer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Whatever one thinks of Harris’s views, or the degree of success the therapy seems to have in helping the workshop’s participants, the unconventionally structured play fails to convince that racial attitudes are behind their sexual problems, which—racial politics aside—seem no different than those affecting anyone, regardless of race. Moreover, the dialogue, while thoughtful, sometimes goes by so swiftly it’s often hard to grasp. Under the animated direction of another important young playwright, Robert O’Hara (author of Bootycandy, Barbecue), the lines are often fodder for long-winded monologues affording each character one or more operatic arias of self-exposure.

Fortunately, each of the actors is emotionally alive and verbally adept, able to make Harris’s words sound meaningful, and sometimes humorous, even when the playwright’s tendency to overwrite forces them to overact. Simply stated, Slave Play is (particularly a final monologue by Kaneisha when alone with Jim in their bedroom) verbose, its characters more symbols than people, its dramatic tension secondary to its theoretical pyrotechnics, and, for its content, its intermissionless two hours too damned long.

This spring will see another Off-Broadway production of a Jeremy O. Harris play, “Daddy,starring Alan Cumming at the Vineyard. Hopefully, it will reflect a refinement of his already apparent talent.


New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through January 13