Do We Have to Love ‘Slave Play’?

When the a sign adorning the theater marquee announces that the play inside “demands to be seen”; when the critical praise includes adjectives like “challenging,” “shocking” and “explosive”; when you take your seat and the first thing you see onstage is a mirror reflecting the audience right back at you; when the work in question is called Slave Play — well, you can be pretty sure you are not in for a comfortable night at the theater. 

Jeremy O. Harris’s play. which has just opened on Broadway after an acclaimed run at the New York Theater Workshop, doesn’t disappoint on that front. It opens with three scenes set on a pre-Civil War plantation, each portraying a graphic sexual encounter: a white overseer and the field slave he lusts after; the plantation owner’s sexually frustrated wife and the house servant she coaxes into bed for dominating sex; a white indentured servant and the black slave who has been put in charge of him. 

At this point, the responsible critic is supposed to issue a spoiler alert. But in the case of Slave Play, the spoiler is helpful, because it explains why those opening scenes seem so excessive and stereotyped, bordering on parody.  Forty minutes into the play, the old plantation disappears and the three couples reemerge in modern dress. It turns out they are participants in an elaborate role-playing experiment, dubbed Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.  The idea is that the couples, all having sexual problems, can work them out by reenacting the master-slave relationships that are an inextricable part of our racial heritage. The rest of the play is mostly a long group-therapy session, in which the participants try to unpack what they’ve just been through, guided by a pair of female researchers (another interracial couple) who have come up with the idea. 

Slave Play is another in a recent spate of works by African-American playwrights that make the argument that slavery was not just America’s original sin; it continues to make honest, satisfying relationships between blacks and whites all but impossible. In Harris’s schematic, sensationalized presentation, however, I simply didn’t buy it. None of these couples seem to have any real connection to each other, and the predictable roundelay of rants and revelations (mixed with some light satire of psychotherapeutic jargon) seems too overwrought and manufactured— driven by a  playwright’s agenda rather than by any intrinsic credibility in the characters and action onstage. 

Nor is the play helped by some over-the-top performances (and perfervid direction by Robert O’Hara), which have ratcheted up considerably since I saw the play last year downtown. Harris, who wrote Slave Play while still a student at the Yale School of Drama, has certainly made an eye-catching Broadway debut.  I’m glad he got this one out of his system. But I’ll let the bandwagon of praise pass me by this time, and look forward to what he does next.

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