Zack DeZon

Breaking CultureCulture

‘slave play’ director on being black, gay and broadway

September 14, 2019
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The very event of Slave Play feels as important as the work itself. The play that began in Jeremy O. Harris’s mind when he was a student at Yale, is now on Broadway. For any artist working and dreaming in America, that is a lot to soak in. It becomes even more fantastical when you consider what Slave Play being on Broadway means.

Slave Play is not supposed to be on Broadway. Slave Play is supposed to be in a little off-Broadway theatre by a second-year playwright at Yale,” says Robert O’Hara, director of the antebellum-themed spectacle, articulating with grace what’s significant about this slice of vulgarity and provocation landing in the mainstream. He is right. It does feel both miraculous and deserving, a bizarre and exciting fever dream that Jeremy O. Harris sweated out. That, too, has to be considered a type of Black magic. 

O’Hara continues, “It has penetrated the culture because I think Jeremy has the ability to speak across cultures and media.” Before seeing it, my excitement around Slave Play parallels my dread. I am not looking forward to another narrative around chattel slavery or Black people that enter sexual and/or romantic partnerships with white people. Yet, I am slightly eased by the confidence and grace with which O’Hara speaks about Slave Play, that makes it hard to even hold on to my descent. “I think as many conversations we can have around the legacy of slavery, the better.”

Director Robert O’Hara and playwright Jeremy O. Harris (second and third from the left) at rehearsals for the Broadway production of ‘Slave Play’ (photo: courtesy of The Chamber Group)

Enthusiastically curious, I am overwhelmed with excitement at seeing a production that attempts true subversion and boldness, transgression and provocation, in a way that doesn’t simply titillate but makes us sit with our impulses, curiosities, and human nature — faithful to what provoking through art actually means. 

During the chat with the director, I was able to at least entertain the idea that perhaps I didn’t hate chattel slavery narratives; I just found a lot of them boring. Perhaps what I wanted was not an elimination of those narratives, but a transformation of the stories they tell: we know what we think it was like, but maybe there is still a lot of fertile creative space to talk about what it has done (and is still doing) to our imaginations. We need less of a historical recording of the genocide and more of a psychological dissection about what we’ve become due to the act of terror. Something that goes beyond “racist”, but truly speaks to how the American imagination — including our beloved celebrity culture — started on a stage called the auction block. And the country has still not lost its fetish for patriarchical white supremacist domination.

These projections can not truly be taken seriously because I’ve yet to see the Broadway production — I have only seen Harris’ play, Daddy, a campy, melodramatic story of a young Black artist and his older, affluent white sugar daddy. From the chatter surrounding it to its title, Slave Play, unlike Daddy, feels like more of a psychological and sociopolitical risk to witness. The stories of therapists at rehearsals to assist in the processing of the work reminds me of old anecdotes about people fainting upon seeing The Exorcist in theaters because it was that scary. I have no idea how correct those rumors are, but I do know that it all adds to the legend of the work and its impact. 

The response to the potential cultural paradigm shift — or backlash — that the play may inspire was met with a casual cool. “I walk through life as a Black queer man,” says O’Hara, “and there are places I’m not ready to go, and places that are triggering to me, but nobody is curating my experience through life.”

The scene my eyes behold while listening to O’Hara speak, is cinematic. The conversation is taking place on a Manhattan rooftop, where we are seated in such a way that his head — his mind — is among the skyscrapers and clouds and other things oriented towards ascension. Seeing Black queer men in daylight is always a blessing, especially if you know your history. It’s especially blessed when you feel the history. Harris and O’Hara’s collaboration must be considered as one of the manifestations of Joseph Beam’s beloved (and overused) quote that “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.” 

There is something sweet about witnessing two Black queer men, across generations, be able to make something together, let alone something that has potential to shift culture, line pockets, and start conversations in the spirit and the community. There’s a soulfulness to the extravagance that makes it feel personal. 

As I got on the elevator, to leave the clouds, skyscrapers, and Robert O’Hara’s mind, the feeling of wonderment and boldness didn’t leave me. I put my headphones on and Sly & The Family Stones’ “Que Sera, Que Sera” played, perfect for the concise yet heavy words he left at the forefront of my mind, ones that that directly addressed any backlash, critique, or discomfort Slave Play may conjure: “I feel like if you walk into a play called Slave Play, you deserve what you get.”

Ain’t that the freedom we all want in our art and our next stops? Whether our hearts are still in our childhood playgrounds, or on Broadway, there’s no need to justify or explain it. As far as criticism goes, I let Sly Stone sing the final words, “Whatever will be, will be. The future is not for us to see.”