In a country where race has always been divisive, narratives revolving around interracial relationships, especially presented against the backdrop of slavery, are bound to be landmines. So it’s little surprise that the “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” sessions intended to resolve Black partner intimacy concerns of the Broadway hit Slave Play—which premiered back in 2019 just before the pandemic—remained explosive during its L.A. run.
Slave Play’s multi-talented creator Jeremy O. Harris, who first penned the history-making play that garnered 12 Tony nominations—the most ever for a non-musical—in his first year at Yale School of Drama, has certainly been taken to task for the triggering subject matter. The Black Out performances, where all Black audiences could take in the play in a safe space, during the first performances of Slave Play in New York City carried over to its L.A. run, which wraps March 13. Still, there have been some people in both cities, especially during general performances, who have walked out of the play. That has not bothered Harris. In fact, given the heavy subject matter, it’s something he seems to have anticipated.
“Our play is not for everyone,” Harris explains to EBONY just before one of his L.A. shows. “So, when a Black person or white person or any person [says] they want to leave the play, we are not holding them hostage. We will make it possible for them to get up and move comfortably out of the theater.”
Below Harris, , who co-wrote the film Zola and has contributed to the hit show Euphoria, goes into more detail about Slave Play in an exclusive Q&A.
EBONY: Why do you think Slave Play has been so controversial?
Jeremy Harris: I think that it was going to be controversial from the beginning. The title in and of itself as a challenge and, also, a warning to audiences that they're about to endeavor something that engages with our greatest trauma as a nation, right? Outside of the genocide of indigenous people, chattel slavery in America, is like a once in a universe-like atrocity. And, so, from [Slave Play’s] articulation of what it is, it tells the audience they're going to enter a gauntlet. So, I think that invites controversy because I think that, generally, especially from Black authors, people want or desire works that don't challenge. Because to make a work that challenges you as a Black person is to consistently present the sort of idea that to be of color is to be challenging. Which I think doesn't fit well with white people or Black people.
Discussing slavery is already challenging enough, but coupling it with sex, particularly the concept of consensual interracial sex, can be especially triggering. Why did you welcome that kind of smoke?
I grew up in the South [in Virginia]. And I think that growing up in the South, one is presented with a lot of triggering images for our psyche. One of which was a litany of slave narratives that were reiterated by the slave architecture all around me. Like I couldn't go to school without driving by a plantation. I couldn't go to my grandmother's house without passing multiple cotton and tobacco fields. And when we see filmed or theatrical representations of those things, slave films or slave plays, for example, one is constantly bombarded with these images coinciding with a desire for the Black body that were never unpacked or processed at all. But they were all inside of these weird little movies like Gone with the Wind or Mandingo, or even, Amistad, the way in which Djimon [Hounsou] is shot in that movie invites desire. And so I think that one of the things that I wanted to process inside of this play were those dual factors in our understanding of what it means to be an enslaved person in our country, while also thinking about what it means to be a modern person in our country.
Talk about the modern elements of Slave Play —you used music from Rihanna. How does that enhance what you’re trying to do?
One of the things that was very exciting about doing the Black Out is that I got to, for the first time in a formalized setting, discuss the fact that I see Slave Play in line with the work of visual artists. I think that there are a lot of elements inside Slave Play that work in a subconscious realm more so than a conscious one. So I can't articulate all of the reasons why something like Unknown Mortal Orchestra or Ginuwine’s “Pony” or Rihanna’s “Work” are inside of the play outside of the fact that they might work. The best way to describe them for an audience that hasn't seen the plays is that they might function more like the way in which lyrics to a song appear in a Basquiat painting or lyrics float along the sky in a Kerry James Marshall painting.
When you get nominated for 12 Tonys and don't win one, does that matter to you? Or did it not bother you?
I had already told my mom that we weren't going to win, so it didn't. I think what it did though is that it allowed me to affirm for myself, and I think maybe some of my detractors, that I very much didn't make something that was necessarily for white enjoyment. Because the voting block of the Tonys are like 70-something percent white people, whereas, the nominating block of the Tonys were primarily 35 people, and a lot of them were younger, a lot of them were Black and Browner. And those were people that nominated my play. And that’s what I really appreciated was that my community of theater artists recognized the artistry that I put in place for Slave Play was broader and celebrated them, even if the larger voting body preferred a different type of play to mark the year because my favorite plays never won the Tonys …. I get to be that person that's in the history books as being nominated for the most [Tonys] and that's how people will remember me.
You have been accused of responding badly to criticism, particularly from Black women. Is that something you take to heart?
I think that there's been a wild misread of my relationship to criticism. I think that there's this ability to conflate disrespect and cruelty as criticism. And, also, I think that dishonesty as criticism is also something that's constantly used, on the Internet especially, as a place of righteous criticism. And I don't respect that, especially from my peers. As someone who's a theater artist and someone who works in film and television, one can go through my entire Twitter feed, my entire social media feed, and never see me once denigrate the work of another Black artist publicly. Or another artist publicly because I just don't know what that serves. I don't know that that helps anyone. What one can see is very thoughtful writing about work. Like what I've written as a critic about movies like The Fits or the novel, Real Life by Brandon Taylor. And one can also see me celebrating criticism of my work that wasn't positive. I reposted the Theater Times review that Jillian Walker wrote about Slave Play where she did not like the play and I actually used some of her criticisms to change the play when it went to Broadway. I looked at Roxane Gay's critique of the play. I reposted that because it was like love, but she also said that the second act was too long, which is like a critique I've gotten since grad school.
What is it like to be embraced by celebrities and other notables like Rihanna for your play? Surely as a playwright that’s nothing you anticipated.
It was insane to have all of these people that I respected see my work as something fun and exciting and new. It's what every theater artist wants, right? [For] the public sphere outside of the world of theater to embrace their work, because so rarely does that happen for especially straight [or dramatic] plays—that only really happens for musicals.