By: Isa Goldberg
October 17, 2019: The raves and buzz surrounding playwright Jeremy O. Harris are well deserved. A surprising young writer, his grasp of dramatic form, from medieval miracle plays to silent movies, is on par with his sociological observations, and psychological insights. His Broadway premiere, Slave Play is equally all over the place, and delightfully so.
O’Hara, who has championed Harris from early in his career. While O’Hara paces the production for satire and farce, which it is, he also allows the actors to breathe fully in the dramatic scenes. And his appreciation for the actors’ gifts is clear from the way this diverse ensemble teams up to stage their stories. In so doing, they perform scenes that evoke the debacle of American slavery.
Structurally, the play falls into two completely diverse spheres. In Act I the characters act out their relationship issues through sexual fantasy play. And in Act II, they deconstruct the fantasies, also at times through sex play.
In the second act, we meet the graduate students, Tea (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) who lead the program, “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” It’s designed for people with “RID” – “Racialized Inhibiting Disorder.” And the participants in the study are “minoritarians” whose self-image has been shaped by racial trauma. Their difficulties in identifying and expressing feelings about race also fuel the impasse to empathy and communication. So we are told.
While the study appears cut and dry, the dissertation overall is delivered with a dose of sarcasm that is so impish and well-intended that we are happy to receive it. Still, as the program notes attest, the overall effect for audiences is “discomfort.” And some of the assertions we hear, and sex acts we see are defiling.
An especially coy dynamic takes place between young gay men in a 2-year relationship. A sexy actor type, Dustin, played by James Cusatic-Moyer with boundless magnetism, and Gary, sensitively played by Ato Blandson-Wood argue about their racial differences.
Gary being black seems to have the stronger case, but Dustin’s claim that he is of the other “nonwhite” race is believable. After all, his racial appearance is ambiguous. And if you take that to be facetious, you’re discriminating against Hispanic people, and Middle Eastern people, etc.
Also, in erotic pose (Act I), Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) and Kaneeisha (Joaquina Kalukango) work out their psycho sexual fantasies in Comeddia della arte fashion. Their stereotypes of a “masa,” and his slave are presented so fully as to appear indelible, iconic even. Sweeping the stage with her hoop skirt, Kalukango performs the sexual rituals demanded by Jim. When we meet them again in Act II, they are a contemporary married couple who are violently, and self-destructively entangled.
Commanding performances from Sullivan Jones as the mulatto sex slave to the plantation owner’s wife (Annie McNamara) in Act I round out the cast of characters. Later in the play, however, we observe Phillip’s (Sullivan’s) narcissistic obsession as the primary obstacle to communication with his white wife, Alana (Mcnamara). Their relationship speaks to the playwright’s fair, and unbiased depiction of racial conflict.
A dark comedy that is intricately constructed, and complex, still carries a clear and bright message. The urgency to listen sings out. Hopefully, there is comedy to be found in that.
Slave Play ****1/2
252 W. 45th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Running time: two hours with no intermission. $39—$159. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com. Oct. 6—Jan. 5.
Photography: Matthew Murphy