Were it not for its anachronisms, the opening of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play might read like an ugly exploitation movie from the ‘seventies. Overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) interrupts Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) while she’s twerking to Rihanna’s “Work” and rapes her. Meanwhile, Alana (Annie McNamara), a bored and thirsty housewife, summons her husband’s light-skinned slave, Phillip (Sullivan Jones), so she can hear “the negro music you play for the ladies down at y’all’s cabin.” He plays “Ignition” on the violin, she announces she is under “some sort of mulatto spell,” unsheathes a “long ebony dildo,” and rapes him, too. For what it’s worth, the relationship between the slave overseer Nigger Gary (Ato Blankson Wood) and the white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) is more consensual, with a scuffle turning into a frenzied fuck.
This is, as Harris writes in his script, “a comedy of sorts.” And it is. Slave Play is sillier than this synopsis would suggest. When Kaneisha calls Jim “Massa,” he defensively corrects her: “I don’t own ya … Don’t seem quite fair, you see? To put me in the same category as them work. Big House Folk.” He’s not one of those white people. He would prefer “Mista.” And when Nigger Gary taunts Dustin (“They look atchu and they must barely see ya as white”), Dustin deadpans, “Your name is Gary … Gary of the Blond Hair. Gary of the Blue Eyes.” Still, it’s bruising comedy.
Eventually, Jim gets uncomfortable and shouts—in a British accent—”STARBUCKS!” It turns out this is all part of an experimental role-playing therapy. For Black people in interracial relationships, Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy provides an outlet for exploring power dynamics that are mostly invisible to or ignored by their white partners. It’s no accident, for example, that Jim is the one who screams the safe word: while ostensibly here to listen to his wife, he halts the game just as she is reaching orgasm. Later, the group is “unpacking,” and his default response is petulance: he sighs, laughs at others, and quibbles over therapeutic clichés. As Alana says, oblivious that she, too, is speaking over her boyfriend, “the words that seemed the most at the forefront of the discourse were those of the white men in the room.”
Slave Play is rich and lively and exciting, instructive but not didactic, hopeful but not comforting. It’s the best new play this year. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine writes of battles between the “historical self” and the “self self.” This means, for example, that while friends mostly act as “compatible personalities,” occasionally, “her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning … And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.” In Slave Play, Harris dramatizes that battle. When Jim confesses he feels like Kaneisha views him as a virus, she seizes upon his insight: “There’s no way I can unknow, as you wipe your dick across my lips, that when your people landed on this land a third of the indigenous population of the entire continent died of disease.” Still, the end result is not entirely bleak. Despite constant potshots at therapeutic non-language, Harris has a sort of faith in their program, in the healing power of acknowledging how we continue to perform our historical selves in the way we speak to one another, even in our most intimate relationships. And like Aleshea Harris in What to Send Up When It Goes Down—and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in Everybody, and Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music—he sees performance itself as a means of restoration.
It’s been two weeks since I saw Slave Play and I’m still reeling.