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Theatre in Review: Slave Play (New York Theatre Workshop)

Teyonah Parris, Paul Alexander Nolan. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Advance publicity for Slave Play has anointed playwright Jeremy O. Harris as this season's new provocateur, a fearless talent ready to overturn whatever pieties are left regarding race, sexuality, and history. Certainly, Slave Play is a good stab at a sociopolitical shocker, even when hampered by structural oddities, a taste for repetition, and a rather too-obvious need to ride the audience's nerves. It's an original, audacious, sexually explicit work -- a spoof of Mandingo-style melodramas that ends up in the equally racially fraught world of today, boldly exploring the link between oppression and eroticism. Even when it irritates -- which is often -- you can't say you've ever seen anything like it.

Slave Play is structured as a kind of triptych. It opens with Kaneisha, a slave, and Jim, a plantation overseer, circling each other in a tense come-hither exchange. He doesn't want to be called "Massa," and she is frankly seductive; her prodigious skill at shaking her rear end is put to extensive use here. The path of lust is not straightforward, however. They veer between the conventional power dynamics embedded in their roles -- he threatens to whip her because she hasn't cleaned the floor sufficiently -- and their obvious mutual hunger. As it happens, these two things cannot be separated; indeed, one informs the other. By the time he has her skirt up, taking her from behind, she is murmuring, "Mista Jim, call me a nasty negress, a nasty, lazy negress."

Meanwhile, in an upstairs room dominated by an enormous canopy bed, Alana, the lady of the plantation, is flirting shamelessly with Phillip, a handsome, courtly, nattily dressed house slave. Before long, they are diving under the sheets -- and Alana produces an enormous black dildo, which she intends to use on him. ("Being the man is so much fun," she coos, a line Scarlett O'Hara surely never spoke.) Next up are Dustin, a white indentured servant, and Gary, a dominating black overseer; this unlikely reverse setup -- which is filled with mutual hostility even as the men feel each other up -- plays out with the wooden dialogue of a gay porn video; before it ends, abruptly and in tears, Dustin is on his knees, licking Gary's boots, moaning lines like "So yummy, this big black thing."

That these episodes are obviously anachronistic -- right down to the Calvin Klein underwear worn beneath period costumes -- leaves one wondering where Harris is going. (If the N-word is a trigger for you, best to give a wide berth to New York Theatre Workshop for the next several weeks.) Is Slave Play pure sketch comedy? These scenes aren't particularly amusing and are marked by a stagy quality that prevents them from being too shocking. Then the action takes a decisive turn and if you think you're going to see Slave Play and would prefer to be surprised, this would be a good time to stop reading this review. A pause of several minutes for a lengthy set change ensues, leaving the audience in limbo. This is remarkably silly, since Clint Ramos' design is so spare; still, we are left watching eight chairs being slowly set out in a semicircle. Maybe Harris and his director, Robert O'Hara, feel that we need to catch our collective breath -- a concern that needn't have worried them.

Finally, the penny drops: It is really 2018 and it is revealed that all three couples are participating in a bizarre form of therapy -- run by Patricia and Teá, partners in life and research -- designed to address the fact that none of the black partners can achieve sexual climax. "A lot of the work we are doing and have been doing is about shining a light on these dynamics in order to racially center the black body in discourse around white supremacy," Teá says, later adding, "which is one of the reasons this therapy is situated around prolonged exposure via Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy," which is designed to counter RID, or Racialized Inhibiting Disorder. In other words, enacting racial oppression is calculated to help release the libido.

This sequence has its moments of hilarity, such as when the not-terribly bright Phillip, listening to the therapists theorize, says, "I don't know, like, half the words you just said"; when Dustin, an actor, insists his desire to move out of Harlem "has nothing to do with me not wanting to live near black people and has everything to do with me wanting to be able to get to an audition on time without having to walk almost a mile to get to a decent train"; or when Teá, trying to calm down the room, says, "Let's not engage with 'f--k yous' right now, partners," adding, "there will be time for aggression later." And Harris has plenty to say about the fascinating and original idea that the black characters can only achieve sexual satisfaction by explicity accessing their own -- and their race's -- history of abuse. This comes through most vividly when Phillip realizes that, despite a lifetime's insistence that he hasn't been the victim of prejudice, he felt profound sexual excitement only when making love to Alana as her then-husband looked on: "I felt like the little n----r boy you all had invited into the house," he notes.

Even here, however, the playwright is not his own best advocate. He seems to want to accept the conclusions of Patricia and Teá while simultaneously spoofing the characters as intellectual attitudinizers spouting reams of politically correct jargon. Patricia says, "A lot of masks, the ones we hold up on and over our faces every day, are starting to come off" -- a statement that loses force when all the characters are basically rhetorical devices rather than recognizable people. For that matter, portraying a lesbian couple as passive-aggressive antagonists isn't the freshest idea -- neither is making Dustin overdramatic and self-involved, nor portraying Jim, an Englishman, as acerbic and lacking in feeling. In truth, Slave Play supports as many stereotypes as it smashes.

The finale is an intimate encounter between Kaneisha, who, after keeping her counsel through most of the therapy session, ends the previous scene with an eruption in which she accuses Jim of being "a virus." The final scene consists mostly of a long, furious aria in which she recaps their relationship and the lies upon which it was founded, climaxing in a sexual encounter that functions as a kind of exorcism. In another, shorter play, this scene might have been a scathing summing-up that all but takes the paint off the walls; by this point, however, fatigue has set in, and Slave Play, which began as an assault on the audience's sensibilities, begins to sink in an ocean of logorrhea.

O'Hara -- not one to rein in anything, as evidenced by his own plays Bootycandy and Mankind -- may not have been the ideal choice to direct Slave Play; he gets some electric work from his cast but can't impose any tautness on the play's disjointed structure. Still, the cast excels: Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer bring some real tension to the Gary-Dustin relationship, especially when the latter insists that he isn't white. (Infuriatingly to Gary, he refuses to identify his ethnic makeup.) Sullivan Jones makes Phillip's self-realization into one of the production's most memorable moments. (As Alana, Annie McNamara has to cope with a character who fades a bit after her initial appearance.) Teyonah Parris, a new face, shows plenty of nascent star power in her ability to handle the sustained intensity of Kaneisha's big speech, and Paul Alexander Nolan, best known for his work in musicals, brings so much nuance to the underwritten role of Jim that he acquires some notably lifelike dimensions. Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio provide steady amusement as the sincere, bloviating Teá and Patricia.

Also, Ramos delivers one of his most striking and original scenic designs: He places a mural, depicting a plantation exterior, at the back of the theatre, where it is reflected on the mirrored upstage wall of the set. Dede Ayite's costumes range from beautiful period gowns and suits to detail-perfect contemporary wear. Jiyoun Chang's lighting and Lindsay Jones' sound design also make find contributions.

It's hard not to be excited by Harris' ambition and willingness to tackle the thorniest material, even as one is exhausted by his insistence on telling everything he knows, repeatedly. (Despite everything, I'm eager to see his next play, "Daddy", which opens at The New Group early next year.) There is an original theatrical mind at work here, but he needs to marshal his arguments with more discipline. Slave Play begins with shock-and-awe tactics, but ultimately, it nearly talks itself to death. -- David Barbour


(21 December 2018)

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