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The new play by Jeremy O. Harris is being billed as an “antebellum fever dream,” and that description can be considered truth in advertising. This wildly imaginative work asserts itself with a daringness rarely seen on our stages these days. Much of it consists of graphically depicted sexual encounters between three mixed-race couples in the Deep South during the slavery era; it’s the sort of production for which trigger warnings were invented. Slave Play, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, doesn’t fully live up to its considerable thematic ambitions, suffering from stylistic overindulgence and repetition. But it definitely marks its 29-year-old author as a talent to watch.
The intermission-less three-act play begins with a lengthy first part set at the MacGregor Plantation near Richmond, Va. The plantation is a veritable hotbed of sexual frenzy, beginning with the torrid liaison between white overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan, recently seen on Broadway leading the short-lived Jimmy Buffett musical, Escape to Margaritaville) and slave Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris, currently on screens in If Beale Street Could Talk). The encounter reflects their respective societal roles, with Jim at one point forcing Kaneisha to eat cantaloupe off the floor.
A similar power imbalance affects the white mistress of the house, Alana (Annie McNamara), and Philip (Sullivan Jones), the mixed-race slave she orders to perform violin music for her. The clearly well-educated Philip begins with Beethoven, much to Alana’s annoyance. “What I wanna hear is some of the negro music you play for the ladies down at y’all’s cabin,” she tells him. But she has more than music in mind. Retrieving an ebony dildo from her nightstand, she tells him, “I want to be inside you.” During the resulting coupling, she enthuses, “Being the man is so much fun.”
Finally, there’s the encounter between white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), the black slave who’s been put in charge of him. Their heated hookup results in the latter experiencing such a powerful orgasm that he collapses to the ground. Looking for help, the panicked Dustin screams “Starbucks!”
“Starbucks?” Say what? Does the antebellum plantation include a branch of the ubiquitous coffee chain? It’s not the first sign that what we’re witnessing may not quite be historically accurate. Kaneisha, for instance, does some frenzied twerking to Rihanna, Dustin and Gary wear chic Calvin Klein underwear, and the song Philip plays on the violin is R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).”
To say much more would spoil the remarkable surprises of the play, which shifts gears significantly for its elongated second act and much shorter third. Suffice it to say that extensive therapeutic, sociological and academic jargon, including a discussion about anhedonia, figure prominently in the satirical mix. Two additional characters, played by Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio, are key elements of the second part. And the third part, featuring one of the couples from the first, further amplifies the play’s provocative themes about how race can factor into relationships.
Harris effectively taps the vein of today’s white-hot, charged debates about race and sex. The first part of Slave Play displays a bracing outrageousness that fuels it along, even if at times it seems too broad in its caricatures. But after the big reveal, the themes are hammered home in overly expository, heavy-handed fashion that feels laborious and overextended. And while the intense encounter depicted in the last section packs an undeniable punch, it ends the evening on a very uncomfortable note that seems designed more for shock value than credibility.
The staging by Robert O’Hara, who has dealt with similarly provocative themes with his own plays, including Bootycandy and Barbecue, fully exploits the evening’s incendiary elements. The versatile ensemble displays absolute fearlessness with their first-rate performances. And the design elements, including Dede Aylte’s period and non-period costumes and Clint Ramos’ set, featuring large mirrored panels reflecting both the audience and a painting of the plantation located at the rear of the theater, serve the work perfectly.
Harris has another play, Daddy, premiering off-Broadway next year in a New Group/Vineyard Theatre co-production starring Alan Cumming. The playwright also is currently studying at Yale School of Drama, which perhaps accounts for this effort having the feel of an ambitious graduate thesis. To his credit though, Harris seems intent on making us think and pushing our buttons, and in those aims Slave Play fulfills its goals.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan, Teyonah Parris
Playwright: Jeremy O. Harris
Director: Robert O’Hara
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Dede Aylte
Lighting designer: Jiyoun Chang
Music and sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop
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