When Slave Play ran Off Broadway at The New York Theater Workshop, Change.org petitioned to have it canceled. There’s so much buzz around the piece, it’s impossible to know what to expect. Rest assured, spoilers in this review – there must, of course, be some – will not minimize experience. Acting and direction are outstanding; writing is brave, unnerving, comic, and sometimes extremely insightful.
First let me dispel the presumption that a dildo, a whip, nudity (beautiful bodies), bondage and simulated sex are the source of collective discomfort. At this point, a contemporary audience is unlikely to be shocked, especially since context ameliorates impact. One is unsettled not by these, but rather about the way history can implicitly complicate/blindside interracial relationships. Here these are intimate, but viewed on a national level.
Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), a slave on the Antebellum MacGregor Plantation, is sweeping with a stick broom when suddenly, modern day music finds her twerking. “What the hell you doin’?” Overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) challenges, grasping his bull whip. “Sorry Massa Jeem, somethin’ just came over me…” she responds provocatively, sounding like Butterfly McQueen. Eventually he takes the bait.
Alana (Annie McNamara), mistress of the estate, calls to cultured house slave, Phillip (Sullivan Jones), from her frou-frou bedroom. She wants him to play the violin. “Some a’ that negro music that’ll make me hoot and holla…” The demand is clearly a prelude to releasing her physical and psychological stays. Still, Alana’s further wishes are surprising.
Hauling a cart filled with heavy cotton bales, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) sweats and curses. Foreman Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) goads the cocky indentured servant. Clothes are shed to Calvin Klein skivvies. There’s a fight and immensely clever depiction of sexual arousal/sex.
You may wince. Most of the audience laughed. Sessions are aborted when an ironic “safe word” is called out.
All three couples, each including one white and one African American person, are subjects in Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy run by psychobabbling psychologists Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) and Tea (Chalia La Tour), both excellent actors. In each case, the black partner is having race-based sexual/ intimacy issues his/her loved one can’t comprehend. Those of us who are white realize discomfiting validity and, by extension, prevalence in interracial communication.
Led in group processing by the doctors, participants peel away layers of habitual behavior and presumption to create a primal session. Here’s where the really good writing starts. (I found part one less effective because of its conspicuous role playing and prolonged length.) Characters are yanked from passivity, self-protection, and/or lack of awareness in startling ways. Behavior erupts and exhausts with sometimes amusing, often sympathetic distinction. The scene is a thrilling roller coaster ride.
Precise comic timing and imaginative physical manifestation engineered by Director Robert O’Hara is marvelous. There isn’t a minute when each of the immensely committed actors doesn’t display trappings appropriate to his/her character. Listening is omnipresent, small stage business credible, outbursts measured to prime effect.
Part three might be considered an epilogue. We follow one couple home to attempted reconciliation/pacification on his part and horrified resolution on hers.
Where does this leave us? History can’t be taken back nor memory erased. We’re responsible as a race, but can only control ourselves. These lovers see past skin color and suffer consequences. How much of the black nation bears this overt consciousness?
Jeremy O. Harris’ exploration illuminates, perturbs, and (sometimes sardonically) entertains. Perception rises like geysers leaving surrounding area splashed. Harris’ mind reflects traces of early Tony Kushner.
The terrific cast features new-to-me James Cusati-Moyer (Dustin) whose authority over his body is as consummate as emotion is nuanced and whose wide range is apparent. And Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha), a risk-taking actor with great observable depth and credibility.
Clint Ramos’ mirrored set, which intermittently reflects a plantation from images wrapped around the balcony, forces us to see ourselves as unwitting participants.
Costumes by Dede Ayite include iconoclastic character streetwear, Hollywoodish period apparel, and a fun walk on the wild side.
Claire Warden’s intimacy and fight direction lands well except, oddly, when one would least expect issue – visibly false kisses.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: The Company
Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Robert O’Hara
252 West 45th Street
Extended through January 19, 2020