New York City Theater
Think of the vulgar terms that substitute for having sex or making love. All carry the stench of subjugation. Now add not just men subjugating women but whites subjugating blacks. And you have Jeremy O. Harris’ raw, provocative, over-extended “Slave Play” about fear, desire, jealousy and reconciliation.
Harris focuses on four couples: white man/black woman; white woman/black man; white man/black man; and a lesbian pair. Covering all bases, Harris sets up his characters as archetypes, against a mirrored background that reflects not only the audience but a diorama of a southern plantation. (Scenic design by Clint Ramos.)
The first part of this three-part play starts with a couple, Gary (Paul Alexander Nolan), a white overseer, and Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), a booty-shaking servant. Another couple has a white woman, Alana (Annie McNamara) humiliate her black butler, Phillip (Sullivan Jones), with a dildo. The third couple, two men, is a reversal: the black, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), is supposedly the boss while the white, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), a servant. But the latter is the dominant partner. The three encounters are shocking in their sexual violence yet amusingly over the top.
The play’s second part is a therapy session, wherein lesbian facilitators (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) encourage the couples to face their actions. Though it goes on way too long, the sequence is very funny in mocking self-help organizations with their condescending slogans. More seriously, it examines motivations, actions and the need for control. “How does it feel?” is the mantra.
That question is answered in part three where the “overseer” is subject to a tongue-lashing by his wife, Kaneisha. Calling him a “virus,” she wants him to listen to her as a human being, not an object,
The play pulls no punches in its upsetting linking of race and sex. The most basic human relationship is a signpost of this country’s original sin of slavery, the buying, selling and exploiting another human being as both plaything and object of derision.
As the evening goes uphill in intellect, however, it goes downhill in emotion. The middle part, the therapy session, is so self-consciously satirical, it loses an anchoring reality.
Still, “Slave Play” is meant to stimulate and that it does. The playwright’s sequences are indelible, whether the punchy sex scenes, the faux therapy session with its meltdowns or the final, aching, reckoning.
Under Robert O’Hara’s pungent direction, the actors are a distinguished bunch. For the characters, for us, they dive into the muck of racism and spread its ugliness.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 20, 2019