Review: Race and Sex in Plantation America in ‘Slave Play’

Posted December 9, 2018 9:47 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Kaneisha begs Mista Jim, her overseer on the MacGregor plantation, to call her a “nasty Negress” as he forces himself upon her.

Mistress Alana, the lady of the manor, lustily wields her mother’s hand-me-down dildo to penetrate Phillip, her violin-playing house slave.

Elsewhere on the Virginia plantation, Gary, who is black, makes a white indentured servant named Dustin bring him to orgasm by licking his boots.

That’s how “Slave Play,” which opened Sunday at New York Theater Workshop, begins — and then it gets really outrageous.

Saying much more would mean giving away at least one huge surprise that this willfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering new play by Jeremy O. Harris has in store. And yet its urgency and sheer cultural heft, deployed like weapons in a furiously entertaining production directed by Robert O’Hara, don’t leave much choice. It all but demands to be — in its own terminology — processed.

So proceed with caution, and let’s make “spoiler” our safe word, shall we?

Not that there’s much pretense to narrative normalcy. You will know something’s askew even before you get to the end of the first of those quasi-pornographic playlets. Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) is more assertive — and Mista Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) more nervous — than you would expect in a real antebellum encounter. Then, too, Kaneisha is occasionally overtaken by musical fits in which Rihanna’s song “Work” causes her to twerk.

Music plays a role in the other sex scenes as well. Mistress Alana (Annie McNamara) can’t stand the “new” tunes by Beethoven that Phillip (Sullivan Jones) prefers to play; she instead demands a spiritual, or whatever it is that makes “the ladies down at y’all’s cabin” swoon.

And as Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) starts to dominate Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), he is suddenly overcome by the song “Multi-Love,” a 2015 hit from Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Though Harris is still in drama school, and “Slave Play” is his first professional New York production, he writes as if he’s known all his life how to twist audiences into all kinds of pretzels. In particular I can say as a white person that he manipulates white discomfort expertly to the advantage of his storytelling. Until I encountered his potent brew of minstrelsy and melodrama, I hadn’t known it was possible — except perhaps in plays like “Bootycandy,” by O’Hara — to cringe and laugh and blush at the same time.

So it comes as a relief, at first, when the play completely changes course about a quarter of the way through its intermissionless two hours. The six characters now reappear — spoiler! — as contemporary interracial couples in sex therapy.

It seems that the MacGregor plantation has become a resort and conference center; the couples are there as part of a weeklong program run by social scientists Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), late of Smith and Yale. Their program focuses primarily on helping the black participants, who are no longer able to receive pleasure from their white — or whiter — partners. The scenes we saw at the beginning of the play were their therapeutic fantasies, spun out in role-play.

Harris does not squander the satirical opportunities this setup offers. Words like “positionality,” “minoritarian” and “heteropatriarchal” get quite a workout as La Tour and Lucio mine characters whose intelligence has been co-opted by cant. And though some of this material could use pruning, O’Hara proves the perfect collaborator in staging it, playing the comedy so bright and dense that you don’t have the bandwidth to grow bored. Nor do you notice, until you’re too far along, that comedy is not all it is.

Because the thing about this therapy — perhaps like the play — is that it works not despite but because of its absurdity. Teá and Patricia’s “processing” of the black participants’ fantasies gives them access to insight that their social conditioning had previously obscured.

None of that insight is welcome news for their partners. If Dustin, Alana and especially Jim — a Brit who finds the whole concept insane and traumatizing — are unable to see what their whiteness has to do with it, we in the audience see it all too clearly. Gary, Phillip and Kaneisha exist “squarely in the blind spot of their nonblack partner,” a phrase that is no less damning for being clinical.

Though all of the black participants have psychological cofactors, including obsessive-compulsive disorders, it misses the point to say the deck has been stacked. Harris isn’t making a universal statement about individuals in interracial partnerships; he’s aiming at the interracial partnership of America as a whole. By the time the play, which has a classical form much like a sonata, reaches a final scene involving just one of the couples, its sharp narrowing in feels like a vast broadening out. In plantation America, which in Harris’ cosmology is both antebellum and post-, can white people learn to love black people — not just their music and their plays — as actual black people, on black people’s terms?

“Slave Play” is extreme, both in the way it poses that question through sex and in posing the question at all. It asks a lot of its superior cast, whose portrayal of arousal and fury and shame feels terrifyingly real even within a very artificial reality. The designers — Clint Ramos (scenery), Dede Ayite (costumes), Jiyoun Chang (lighting) and Lindsay Jones (sound) — create that artificial world with great theatrical wit and intelligence. The intimacy director, Claire Warden, has been kept very busy.

“Slave Play” asks a lot of the audience, too — but let me speak just of myself. It’s hard for a critic to heed what seems to be its general instruction, at least to white people, to shut up for once and listen. If you are in the reviewing trade, you wonder whether that’s just a feint at foiling criticism. So be it.

But I find myself unable to resist “processing,” and grateful to hear so plainly, the idea that Harris puts forward in the silent space his play insists on clearing: that one race lives with history each day while another pretends not to. In late 2018, I fear that’s still a spoiler.

Production Notes:

“Slave Play”

Through Jan. 13 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; 212-460-5475, nytw.org. Running time: 2 hours.

By Jeremy O. Harris; directed by Robert O’Hara; sets by Clint Ramos; costumes by Dede Ayite; lighting by Jiyoun Chang; sound and music by Lindsay Jones; props by Noah Mease; hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan; movement by Byron Easley; intimacy and fight director, Claire Warden; dramaturge, Amauta Marston-Firmino; dialect coach, Dawn-Elin Fraser; stage manager, Jhanaë K-C Bonnick. Presented by New York Theater Workshop.

Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood (Gary), James Cusati-Moyer (Dustin), Sullivan Jones (Phillip), Chalia La Tour (Teá), Irene Sofia Lucio (Patricia), Annie McNamara (Alana), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jim) and Teyonah Parris (Kaneisha).