“Slaving Away at Sex”
[Note: this is an updated, expanded version of the review posted here for the play’s Off-Broadway production, seen December 13, 2018.]
The move to Broadway of Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’s provocative, award-winning play about the intersection of race and sex in American society, first produced at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village this past winter, must have come as a surprise to many of those who saw it there. Its subject matter, literary mannerisms, and envelope-pushing production elements are not what ordinarily passes for commercial entertainment.
|Above: Irene Sofia Lucio, Chalia La Tour. Below: Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara, Joaquina Kalukango, Paul Alexander Nolan. All photos: Matthew Murphy.
Slave Play’s Off-Broadway reception, while largely positive, was not universally so, which is also true of the Broadway production, although many powerful critical voices among the 25 already blurbed on Show-Score.com—including the New York Times—strongly support it. My own reaction, now as then, is less enthusiastic.
In most respects, the Broadway production replicates the Off-Broadway one. Only one player has been changed, Joaqina Kalukango now taking the part of Kaneisha, originally played (very well) by Teyonah Paris. Clint Ramos’s striking set, looking perhaps a bit more substantial than before, continues to provide a background composed of a mirrored wall, reminiscent of those in shows like A Chorus Line and Cabaret, with built-in entranceways.
The painting of a plantation placed along the back wall of the East Village venue has been replaced by a long, narrow, illuminated image situated along the front of the mezzanine section over the heads of the audience in the orchestra seating. Although it’s not clear, the intention would seem to be to implicate us in the play’s ideas regarding the antebellum South.
Personally, I never felt connected to what was being shown—but 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, on and Off Broadway. You may or may not agree with Harris (a Yale playwriting student who describes himself as “Tall, lanky, queer, and black”) but it’s likely he’ll give you something to talk about afterward if you see the play with someone else.
It begins with three successive scenes set in the antebellum South, at the MacGregor Plantation near Richmond, Virginia, each dealing with interracial sexual relationships. In the first, a young black woman, Kaneisha, 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 in large, transparent, lowercase letters. When the whip-carrying, white overseer (not master), Jim (Paul Alexander Noble, Welcome to Margaritaville), sees this, the pair act out the sexual dynamics of their situation.
|Annie McNamara, Sullivan Jones.
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 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.
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.
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.
|James Cusati-Moyer, Ato Blankson-Wood.
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, as she herself notes, fair-skinned) Teá (Chalia La Tour).
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.”
|Company of Slave Play.
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. Racial politics aside, they seem no different than those affecting any couple, regardless of race. The difficult-to-accept premise does, however, have the benefit of allowing for an open discussion, exaggerated as it often is, of boiling racial feelings and beliefs.
However, 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. More often than not, the intention seems to be to eviscerate the pomposity of pseudo-scientific researchers and psychotherapists and the overblown psychological sensitivities of couples seeing therapy.
Seeing the play again only served to make the characters—both analysts and analysands—behave like self-involved drama queens and kings, not real people concerned with serious issues. Few non-musical Broadway plays offer their casts the nearly operatic opportunities for histrionic hyperbole that Slave Play does.
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 verbose (particularly a final monologue by Kaneisha when alone with Jim in their bedroom), its characters more symbols than people, its dramatic tension secondary to its theoretical pyrotechnics, and, given its content, its intermissionless two hours too damned long.
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