At the beginning of the script for Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris writes, “You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all.” True to this directive, the original production, which premiered last year at the New York Theatre Workshop, left its audience nowhere to hide. We viewed two scenes of antebellum rape followed by a more ambiguous sexual encounter between a Black overseer, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), and a white, indentured servant, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer). The action was funny but brutal, and Harris was fully committed to what he was doing: asking us watch the slave Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) as she is raped by her white overseer, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), and then Phillip (Sullivan Jones) as he is raped by his master’s wife, Alana (Annie McNamara).
The second-act reveal—spoilers ahead—is that all six are participating in a radical form of therapy in which Black patients who no longer receive sexual satisfaction from their white partners enact the racial dynamics of their relationships through slavery role play. Much of the pain, and much of the humor, resides in the fact that these dynamics persist long after the roleplaying is over: Jim, Alana, and Dustin continue to dominate the conversation, to break the rules, and to highlight their own suffering at the cost of their partners’ voices. In a telling moment, Jim calls it “therapy to help my wife,” locating the source of their relationship problems outside himself. Kaneisha, Phillip, and Gary mostly sit in silence, though Harris does give Kaneisha an exquisite, cathartic, and hopeful monologue in the final act.
Unfortunately, in the transfer to Broadway, Slave Play has failed to live up to Harris’ instruction: it makes us comfortable. At the New York Theatre Workshop, one could reasonably watch a third of the play before realizing it is set in the present day. At the Golden Theatre, however, the actors drop more hints—there are smirks, small moments when their characters break character—and the result is a more relaxed experience. If we don’t entirely understand what we are seeing, we can tell it is some sort of performance, and therefore we are no longer required to sit in discomfort. The emotional weight of the first act is precipitously lifted.
Slave Play is still, unquestionably, one of the strongest and most exciting new works I have seen in years. But context matters, and I can’t help but wonder if Broadway has softened its edges.