'Slave Play' Tells Hard Truths About Fetishizing Race with Little Foreplay

by Emell Adolphus

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday December 5, 2021
Originally published on December 2, 2021

The cast of 'Slave Play.'
The cast of 'Slave Play.'  (Source:Evan Zimmerman/MurphyMade)

In the script notes for Tony Award-nominated "Slave Play" — which returns to Broadway tonight at the August Wilson Theatre through Jan. 23, 2022 — playwright Jeremy O. Harris writes that the production "should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all." In the course of the play's two-hour running time (no intermission), the audience witnesses what I can only describe as "a lot."

This includes a big black dildo, Rihanna-induced twerking, and the oftentimes violently erotic release of pent-up emotional frustration — all set in what we believe to be America's Antebellum South.

The audience is along for the ride as the Black characters, all halves of interracial couples, exercise the broken power dynamics in their relationships. But Harris, in bold fashion, makes it clear that this ride isn't free—for the characters or the audience. Everyone has work to do in "Slave Play." And just as the play threatens to fly off the rails in its unpacking of racism, tokenism, sexuality and color fetishism, Harris asks you to look in the mirror (literally, depending on where you're sitting as you may catch your reflection on Clint Ramos's reflective set). And it all makes sense. If you're gay, look extra close.

Harris, 32, is a queer Black man who was raised with modest means by a single mother in Martinsville, Virginia; a common upbringing for many Black kids. Uncommon, as he detailed in a New York Times interview, was his interest in The Great White Way.

He studied acting then poetry at Chicago's DePaul University before dropping out entirely. After spending some time in the Chicago theater scene, he was then reportedly accepted to the Yale School of Drama after pitching "Slave Play" during his entrance interview.

Stepping into such long-held spaces of white, gay privilege, Harris doesn't pull any punches in portraying his perspective of how society puts whiteness on a pedestal. His theater work often puts Black queerness in the driver's seat to collide, sometimes literally, with what has been accepted as the norm.

In one of Harris' other recent works, "Daddy," he tells the story of a young Black artist who befriends an older white art collector (played Off-Broadway by Alan Cumming) while he's on the verge of superstardom. The relationship turns into a feverish connection that tips the power dynamic between the two.

(l to r) Irene Sofia Lucio, Devin Kawaoka and Ato Blankson-Wood in 'Slave Play.'
(l to r) Irene Sofia Lucio, Devin Kawaoka and Ato Blankson-Wood in 'Slave Play.'  (Source: Evan Zimmerman/MurphyMade)

In "Slave Play," Harris illustrates just how skewed our "normal" has become— even in the LGBTQ+ community where people often have to fight discrimination on multiple fronts. Before seeing the play on stage, its script should be required reading. The actors and the directing give meaning to what sometimes seems simple in the text. But in the text is also where Harris clearly states his intentions to set up and knockdown tropes about Black sexuality and what it should be.

There is a powerful moment in the play when a gay Black character (Ato Blankson-Wood) finally realizes that his partner uses his whiteness to erase his worth. The character knows no matter how exceptional he is, he will never truly hold any power in the relationship because his skin is black. A very real, and personally touching, realization for any Black person, gay or straight, who has ever tried to date outside their race.

Harris' "Slave Play" works to restore worth back to those who are consistently othered for their lack of whiteness. To put it plainly, "Slave Play" is not a play about Black people. It is a play for those who say they "know black people."

"Slave Play"
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street, NYC
Through January 23, 2022

Note: The production announced that the first Black Out performance for the Broadway return will be Friday, December 3. This private, invitation-only performance will allow the Black-identifying audience to experience and discuss the play free from the white gaze. Harris birthed the idea of Black Out performances in the original Broadway run, in recognition of Broadway's rich, diverse, and fraught history with Black work.