Black art rarely emerges without controversy. Our creations are inherently political, specifically because this country never intended them to exist in the first place. In fact, 400 years after the start of the transatlantic slave trade our trauma is still so present, many of us would prefer to distance ourselves from that history altogether.
Understandable, then, was the concern and controversy sparked by playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, a farcical consideration of the horrors of slavery and its effects on contemporary relationships, which became a runaway hit at the New York Theatre Workshop last winter, subsequently transferring to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre on Tuesday, Sept. 10—a remarkable feat in the two-and-a-half years since Harris completed the piece while still a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama.
Simultaneously widely lauded by theater critics and lambasted by many in the black community, Harris first spoke to The Root in January of this year about the controversy, which at the time had even inspired a petition calling for its demise. Now, on the eve of its Broadway debut (which The Root will be reviewing this week), Harris again seeks to set the record straight on the genesis and intent of his controversial creation—as well as how he perceives his work in relation to that of other famed black writers, and black theater and culture, on the whole. As he tells The Root, “I think that the thing that I’m really hoping for with this version of [Slave Play] is that more context can be given for who I am, the type of policies I hold, and why I even write.”
“[I] recognize that I’m not going to change some people’s minds. The internet can make a narrative about a person stay as long as they need it to,” he says, referencing both the online backlash and perhaps too-exuberant acclaim that has generated ire from many who won’t even deign to see or read the content.
“For a certain person that doesn’t want to see me writing plays in a public sphere—or writing this play in a public sphere—they are militant about making sure that people have the information about the play they want them to have, and not the full context of what it’s going to be,” Harris adds, sharing the influences and inspiration that brought Slave Play to fruition, in his own words.
Slave Play is rooted in the black avant-garde theatrical tradition.
“I’ve only ever written because of my own obsession with specifically forgotten avant-garde voices of color,” says Harris, citing early 20th-century playwright Marita Bonner (The Purple Flower), and more recently, Adrienne Kennedy.
“Funnyhouse of a Negro—that is colloquially the one Adrienne Kennedy play that everyone can say that they have heard of or kind of know. But like, they don’t know the depth of this woman’s canon,” he adds, “[She] was creating dramaturgy that we’re seeing from new black playwrights now, but critics don’t have language for, so they think that every young black writer who’s doing things that they find exciting are [creating] them completely and it’s like, ‘No, that’s literally in reference to [Kennedy’s] The Owl Answers, whether that writer remembers that they’re referencing that or not—or at least, it’s built on the back of that.”
“Some people have heard me say things in and around and about the contributions of August Wilson that have made them think that I’m, like, anti-August Wilson or something,” says Harris. “I’m not anti-August Wilson, but I definitely do have a frustration with the fact that in white theaters across America, that is their only understanding of what blackness is in the theatrical canon.
“It is also the only understanding that most theater audiences have of what a black dramaturgy can be, outside of maybe Suzan-Lori Parks or Lynn Nottage, who pushed the envelope in so many ways in their respective spaces from the 1990s to now…Since 1992, we haven’t had a revival of a black play on Broadway that wasn’t written by August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry. People don’t realize how long our history is and how many disparate questions we’ve asked in those spaces.”
Believe it or not, Tyler Perry represents avant-garde theater, too.
“If you just look at the dramaturgy; like what actual techniques [Perry] utilizes to tell a story to a black audience, he’s using the same techniques that all of those experimental white theater companies use downtown,” Harris explains. “As someone who grew up in a working-class environment in the South, I was only able to know all the plays I know now by reading them, and the only plays I actually saw for most of my time in high school outside of high school productions or community theater productions were plays from the urban theater circuit…
“And so, for me, we’re in this moment now where we’ve commodified black making in the actual landscape,” he continues, lamenting that the work produced is typically only compared within a bourgeois-level context. “We aren’t looking at, like, the most obvious source for a lot of theatrical memory-making for black people; especially for black people from the working class, which is chitlin’ circuit theater and the black church, which I think does a disservice to understanding the work that we’re all doing right now.”
No, slavery isn’t funny; but Slave Play likely isn’t what you think it is.
“One of the reasons I was immediately going to call the play Slave Play is that there are a litany of plays and film and television shows that, at the time when I was building this, were either in development or had just come out, or were sort of taking the culture by storm [among them the play An Octoroon, acclaimed television series Underground and 12 Years a Slave],” explains Harris.
“I was sort of struck by all of those things being part of the culture and the ways in which they would be talked about…There were some black people who were like ‘I’m so tired of this; why can’t we make something about right now?’ Or the white people who were like, crying at me, and were like, ‘I had no idea,’” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean you had no idea? We read the same history books…What is this sort of, like, historical disavowal you allow yourself to have that you didn’t know about this, and then, like, a week later, can once again do some microaggression to someone?’” he laughs.
“So, I was thinking of all the things and I think that for me, I also had this thing where I was like, ‘I’m so tired of living in the North, having lived in the South, having gone to a high school that had its graduation party at a plantation, and living with people—black and white—who had such a weird relationship to that history,” Harris added, referencing his own lineage. “When your grandpa was an actual sharecropper and not someone who was college-educated in the way that you were, you learn to laugh at some of this shit—like, you have to…We already have such epigenetic depression it wouldn’t help the situation if we didn’t laugh.”
Slave Play is intended to be difficult to process—for all of us.
“Robert O’Hara [director of Slave Play] says it so beautifully all the time; he says, “It should cost you something to come see a play called Slave Play, and that cost should be for everyone,” Harris recounts. “No one has forced anyone to see a play called Slave Play; your own interest, your own curiosity, other things bring you through the door. And the thing that this play is saying is that if you’re going to see a play called Slave Play, it should cost you something, and the cost of that is the recognition of how we’re still entangled in that history. We haven’t untangled it just because Black Panther is the number one movie of all time.
“I actually think it’s intellectually irresponsible to pretend like there is not an overflowing amount of spaces where you can see black joy,” Harris further ventures. “I don’t think that there is as much time for black people to process their psyches or their trauma, and this is what I’m interested in doing…I was really excited about making a play where it cost the same thing it cost you to go to your therapist; to look at some of the ways in which we shrink ourselves, we lacerate ourselves because of our entanglement with white supremacy. And that doesn’t mean entitlement that’s built around an interracial relationship, either—for me, the interracial relationship is a metaphor for like, every relationship I’ve had with any white thing—you know, like the white high school I went to the white college I went to, or the white job I work now…This is what we’ve inherited in America and this is what I wanted to mine with my play.”
Slave Play is about seeing black women, not shaming them or their sexuality.
“I literally got a message from someone who was like, ‘When Trump is in office, and there’s so many black women who are having horrible things happen to them on a daily basis, how can you look yourself in the face—no matter how good or how artful you think your play is—and say that this is an okay thing to be doing?’” Harris recounts. “I’m telling one story about one woman…it’s not like I’m making some grand statement about blackness or some grand statement about womanhood…
“[Another critique is] ‘Who does this gay black man think he is writing about black women?’…There’s a history of men writing great roles for women, and that’s what I was attempting to do. I may have failed—and I’ve never said I know something more about black womanhood than any black woman—but I definitely know that what I wanted was to give an opportunity to an actress to have the sort of versatility inside of a character that I’ve only ever seen white actresses given the opportunity to have…Because, I mean, there’s a very specific thing that black women need to be and most of the time that’s strong. …
“But I know that for me, the thing that’s been exciting to me for the 2.5 years I’ve had this play with me is that every black woman I’ve ever given the play to perform has been like ‘This is some of the richest text I’ve ever [encountered]’…they’re writing me beautiful letters, saying, ‘Thank you for writing this for me because I now feel like I can do X, Y, and Z that I’ve always wanted to do’…That’s always been the goal, and I hope that people walk away from the play this time seeing that that was a part of the goal; seeing that all I wanted to do was try to diversify the canon in some way.”
You don’t have to like Slave Play—but good or bad, don’t believe the hype.
“I’ve never once said I was the great black savior of anything—that’s not even a thing I want people to like write…I want this to be a celebration of not me—not like, the things that I’ve done—but it’s a celebration of all the work that has gotten us to a place wherein a commercial landscape we can have a play that’s working in some avant-garde idiom, while still being popular,” Harris explains.
“It’s also asking thematic questions that we haven’t we had asked in this way on a Broadway stage…What does it serve to do a play like Slave Play in an audience full of white people? I think I have the same question about, like, almost every black play that’s been written that gets done in literary theater,” Harris continues. “I think that something that’s really exciting as well is that new conversations could then spark up around how we talk about identity, and how we talk about identity in relationship to this space. I think Slave Play can be a really great vehicle for that conversation.”
Slave Play begins previews on Broadway tonight, Tuesday, Sept. 10, at New York City’s John Golden Theatre. Tickets are available here.