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Jeremy O. Harris is dressed in head-to-toe Gucci and surrounded by a production crew on the tented patio of Abernethy’s in Downtown Los Angeles. There’s a camera pointed at him and a boom mic overhead as the Slave Play sensation does a quick set of junket-style interviews before doors close to Mark Taper Forum for a special opening night presentation on Wednesday. Though the crew seems to be under his employ, Harris won’t say what or whom the filming is for, and with showtime in 10 minutes, he is not only unbothered, he’s beaming.
“This is now my chance to come out to a lot of the community that I grew up with here,” the 32-year-old tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Like, ‘Hey, guys, I know I slept on your couch probably but now I have a play at Mark Taper Forum.'” Those couch surfing days are not that far in the rearview — roughly five years — though much has happened since. After the smashing success (and divisive responses) to Slave Play, Harris has become an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter with credits on Zola, Euphoria and Gossip Girl with his own shows on the horizon.
But tonight is about debuting the piece that made him a star in a place he hoped to become one. “I had big dreams of becoming a marquee name as a film and television actor, and then woke up one day and realized, that’s not what I wanted to do,” he explains. “I wanted to write plays.” Harris extended his gratitude to Center Theatre Group for mounting the production inside its venue, Mark Taper Forum, which, prior to Slave Play, had been dark for 24 months.
To celebrate the reopening, CTG associate artistic directors Tyrone Davis and Lindsay Allbaugh kicked off the show by welcoming the audience, which included notable names Ashley Park, Sofia Boutella, Samira Wiley, Patrick Fabian and Rashaad Hall. After brief remarks from the pair and Harris’s introduction, he passed the microphone to his friend, Morgan Parker, for a reading of “A Note on Your Discomfort.”
“This might hurt. This could prod open regrets and secrts and what you find could be shock,” she read. “Slave Play is a radical study in American memory: the psychologies of the prized and of the oppressed; the grateful and the entitled; who’s top, who’s bottom; who speaks, who can’t,a nd who betta listen.”
Slave Play follows three interracial couples through something called “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” a program they signed up for because the black partners no longer feel sexual attraction to their white partners. The L.A. production stars Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Jonathan Higginbotham, Devin Kawaoka, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Paul Alexander Nolan, Jakeem Dante Powell and Elizabeth Stahlmann. Performances continue through March 13 and to mark the moment, below Harris talks to THR about how L.A. audiences are receiving the work, his recent Twitter dust-up and why the play almost never made it to the West Coast.
How are you feeling now that it’s opening night in L.A.?
It’s bizarre and exhilarating all at the same time. This was supposed to happen two years ago, so am I in Groundhog’s Day? What’s happening? It’s exhilarating because I lived here for six years and I became a theater artist here. When I moved to L.A., I had big dreams of becoming a marquee name as a film and television actor, and then woke up one day and realized, that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write plays. I wanted to be a part of the theater in any way, shape or form. I started building out theater knowledge and a theater career completely in private, almost in secret. I was an autodidact. I completed my journey by reading every play that I could that was a part of the major canon while secretly writing my own. This is now my chance to come out to a lot of the community that I grew up with here. Like, “Hey, guys, I know I slept on your couch probably but now I have a play at Mark Taper Forum.”
Are they asking for free tickets?
Yes. Everyone’s asked for free tickets and I’m giving them. But I always give out free tickets. I’ve been giving out free tickets since we were off-Broadway.
After it was announced that Slave Play would be here in L.A., you pulled it briefly …
[I pulled it because] there was one living female playwright this season.
How did negotiations go to bring it back?
The theater took some time. They talked to their board, and they really listened. I was very ready to not have my play come back. I mean, again, the play was supposed to happen two years ago, so there was no necessity for the play to come back for me. If anything, it would’ve been a nice break because the play ended on Broadway two weeks ago. The play opens tonight [here], and then on Monday, I go to London to open another play at the Almeida.
In a lot of ways, I need a break before I go into a four-week rehearsal process. But [CTG] came back and said that they were going to commission six new female playwrights and have a season committed to the inclusion of [female playwrights]. They’re doing more to say that they actually care about my voice and the voices of women that have been asking for this for 20, 30, 40 years, and they’re doing more than a lot of other theaters have done when acts of protest have been exhibited by artists. I feel like it’s my duty to the community to say, listen, the theater that services your community actually stood up to the concerns of the community because they think that this is important. And because I think it’s important, I will continue to do my play here.
You’ve made it your duty by looking out for others in these other spaces you work in as well, including HBO, whereas they are making investments in the community. What is the experience like of making those requests and being heard?
It’s been amazing. I feel so grateful that I’ve been privileged enough to sit in rooms with people who respected me and my voice enough to listen and to respond in kind when I asked for things that they hadn’t been asked before. That one of the things that I would say to other artists is, if there’s something that you’re really passionate about, a piece of action that you’re really passionate about, and you feel comfortable enough to move away from the comfort that might come from a couple of extra zeros at the end of your paycheck, just ask for the thing. Generally, people are willing to fight for an artist they want to work with.
Part of that fight means going to [business affairs] and saying, I know we’ve never done this before, but this is important and they’re willing to walk away from some of the money. Now, I was in a privileged position to do that because I had a very successful Broadway show, and I don’t have a family. I don’t have actual children or an actual home that I own that I can’t pay for. Or I didn’t when I did all these things. I don’t know how that would be different if I were a parent, or if I didn’t have those successes, but I did. But now there’s precedent for it now. I hope other artists can say because Jeremy O. Harris did it, I want to do it.
I know you’ve watched Slave Play with audiences here in Los Angeles. How are they responding?
L.A. is such an interesting place because everything comes to L.A. in weird [time frames]. It’s like London, everything is different here including fashion. In a lot of ways, Chicago is the gritty heart of the theater and the beating commercial heart is in New York. Then a lot of the trends from both of those cities get to this city a little belated. That’s why I feel like I’m in Groundhog’s Day for a lot of reasons, at least in the sense that I’m re-experiencing certain responses that I got from the off-Broadway run of the play.
What’s been the most shocking or surprising?
The fact that there’s still a necessity to shape a personal discomfort as a universal discomfort in social media discourse. Time and time again, that’s shown to be a losing game yet people still engage with it which I find very funny.
You did a Black Out performance the other night. Were you here?
It was great. I was here, and I wandered through, gave a speech and hung out with my friend Martin a bunch. There was music and food but because I was talking to one of my playwright friends around the corner, I ended up missing so much of the fellowship. I was so exhausted by the sheer exuberance of the experience. Black Out is something we did in New York. Everyone who had been a part of it in New York said it was such a rock-and-roll way to experience Slave Play.
I didn’t know that I could engage with it in that manner again because there’s such a level of engagement that happens when only Black people are in the audience. It cannot be understood if you’ve only ever seen it with an all-white audience or even a primarily mixed audience. Having only black people there who feel completely free and unencumbered with their laughter, with their joy and frustrations, questions and affirmations, is so different than being in a place where people feel they have to have a timidity about how they engage with the theater. Imagine seeing Moonlight or Get Out at a Harlem Theater compared to The Grove. It’s a very different experience.
Speaking of social media reactions, you got into a bit of drama recently on Twitter. How do you wade through that?
I take it as it comes. One of the things that’s quite interesting about having any rising celebrity is that one becomes bigger than their being in the eyes of other people faster than they do to themselves. For me, I’m still just a playwright who just graduated from Yale and happened to have a play on Broadway and is now working on all these other things. I’m no different than my peers. There are people online who are like, “Whoa, you’re so big, what are you doing? Why are you talking like this? Why are you engaging this in this way?”
It’s taking me a second to navigate and understand. … If I’m seeing my name being spoken about in this bigger way, I’m like, “Hey, I’m actually right here. I have a comment about that.” In a way, that is difficult because there’s a responsibility one has when they get to a certain height of celebrity. I don’t feel I’m there but I guess I have to recognize I am sometimes.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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