Photo by McKenzi Thi Murphy
Written By McKenzi Thi Murphy
An outrageously large black dildo, a black woman insisting a white man call her a “dirty negress” and two very athletic men engaging in a choreographed sex fight while wearing nothing but black underwear. The hypersexual opening scenes of Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” soon weed out the weak in the audience as they wonder just what they’ve gotten into.
In previews in the Golden Theatre on Broadway, a show that elicits such an immense visual and auditory white discomfort is surely worth seeing. The set consists of a panel of mirrors reflected out into the audience, which forces them to step away from the complacency and passivity so often involved in seeing a show. The viewers, particularly those lucky enough to be seated front and center, cannot hide, but instead must face their second-hand embarrassment as they watch a white antebellum woman dressed in latex stilettos and a corset peg a completely naked mulatto slave.
The scene, split into three sections featuring this racialized coupling, continues to crescendo to a deeply uncomfortable level until suddenly one of the participants – a plantation overseer with a whip – yells out “Starbucks,” and the three scenes come to a screeching halt.
As it turns out, these over-the-top sex scenes of slaves and their white masters and fellow workers have all been part of a group study/therapy. This so-called called “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” is facilitated by two researchers insistent on being PC to a hilariously satirical level. The sight of the six individuals who had been nearly naked – completely in one case – on stage just a few minutes prior now in casual modern clothing is both jarring and a bit of a relief. Seldom do plays so expertly pull off such a shocking plot twist.
Interestingly enough, the play steers clear of any depiction of female nudity.
This two-hour play, without an intermission, leaves audiences little chance to abandon ship, but it did not stop the three people who walked out on the September 25 matinee. To leave before the big reveal is a disservice to the work Harris has crafted. Though we have seen these characters in scandalous states of undress, they become far more exposed and vulnerable as the therapy goes on.
“Slave Play” is a deep, racially provocative play that delves deeply into topics most shows dealing with race will carefully skirt around: color erasure masked as progressivism, and sexual slave fantasies of both the BDSM and human ownership kind.
The question is not whether “Slave Play” is a good show. It is. But this daring show has already stirred up controversy and the off-Broadway run even faced an online petition to shut it down. While some of the complaints against it have been based on legitimate concerns about the subject material, most are virulently racist and homophobic (Harris himself is a black queer man).
The off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop sold out, and Broadway’s preview run has had two weeks of almost full capacity. While its gross earnings have not lived up to the calculated potential, audience engagement and rising ticket demand has more than made up for any loss. After all, art is about more than just profits. That a commercial, mainstream industry like Broadway would take a chance on such a potentially contentious show already makes this play a success.
At the end of the day, this show is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. While I recommend everyone goes to see it to decide for yourself, the subject matter does not pull punches. At times, the therapy discussions become reminiscent of my gender and sexuality classes, the language a little overly didactic for those searching for a quiet escape for the night. This is not your “Annie Get Your Gun” where minds can wander to little detriment.
I urge anyone who has the impulse to leave within those first few minutes to overlook the dildo. Get past the shock of watching a man have a graphic orgasm after another man licks his boots. Listen to Harris’s message about race and sexuality in the 21st century.
“Slave Play” is on Broadway for a strictly limited 17-week engagement at the John Golden Theatre on W 45th Street. Previews began September 10 and will officially open October 6.