Sex Werk: Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play

Photo by Joan Marcus

Slave Play, by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O’Hara, at New York Theatre workshop through January 13, 2019. Editor’s Note: This response includes a detailed analysis of the production. Prospective audience members who are concerned with spoilers are advised to see the show first, then come back here.

Slave Play’s Act 1 “Work” asks: Do you find it a) repulsive b) hilarious c) hot or d) none of the above when Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris), a young black slave woman (possessed by Rihanna’s “Work”) twerks and sweeps a vivid green astroturf stage for Master— no, they negotiate, “Mister” Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) – before he wields his whip and ‘makes’ her eat out a smashed cantaloupe on the ground? How about when Alana (Annie McNamara), a white plantation mistress strips to reveal a purple petticoat, thigh-high pleather boots and an heirloom black dildo (a wedding day gift from her Mama) which she then uses to sodomize her somewhat consensual house slave? Or, what about Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), a bossy black slave who comes, then cries after a simulated blow job from Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), a white plantation hand?

The act reaches climax when all three mixed race couples share the stage in a frenzied tableau of racially charged sex play. Is there a safe word? Is Kaneisha (“call me a nasty, lazy Negress/ I love this”) really in control? Is Philip (Sullivan Jones) OK with anal? Why is “Nigger Gary” now hyper-ventilating— weren’t they just giggling?  

In a talk back, Harris, a Yale playwriting graduate student, said the play arose during months of listening in theory-heavy academic seminar rooms. I could hear the echoes of José Muñoz, Hortense Spillers, and most of all, Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial psychiatrist and author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) – a raw, political work that confronts the intimate, embodied dynamics of colonialism and the racial limits of Freudian psychology. His chapter “The Fact of Blackness” opens with a visceral performance of the physically debilitating sensation of having to perceive oneself via the other: “Dirty nigger!” Or simply, “Look, a Negro!” […] I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects […] For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” Slave Play too exposes the dynamics of power, object, and subjecthood, but brings the disturbing possibility of pleasure to the table.

Provoked by mid-1970s blaxploitation films like Drum and Mandingo, Slave Play’s wild helix of the radical performativity of gender and race confronts the audience with questions of how to reconcile the power plays of finding pleasure in domination— an erotics of oppression. Alana lubes up her ancestral dildo and drawls: “being the man is so much fun.” Dustin and Gary, as part of their rough foreplay, perform their own racial projections onto one another: “guess those be the powers the races bestowed us.”

By staging a fantastically literalized antebellum present, the audience is not un-implicated, or invisible spectators to this absurd swirl of racialized pleasure with pain, witnesses to the fine lines drawn and redrawn between erotic charge and vile transgression. Yes: contemporary America has not overcome the legacies of slavery. And, yes: black bodies are still fetishized and objectified.

It’s as if Harris brings one of visual artist Kara Walker’s gorgeous, yet grotesque silhouetted scenes of antebellum atrocities to lurid life. And, similar to a massive Walker piece combined with projection— one that can’t be confronted without the viewer casting their own shadow over it— Slave Play’s audience is reflected by the mirrored back wall of the set (a clever workaround by director Robert O’Hara and scenic designer Clint Ramos to approximate Harris’s desire to have it performed in the round).

Mercifully, the collective humping stops when someone yells: “STARBUCKS!” Two women in khaki with headsets and sensible loafers race to the rescue. Part stage managers, part group therapists, they clean up the whip, the bed, the broken melon: “Let’s meet back in the big house in 15.” The specter of the projected Plantation house looms and carnivalesque music, overlaid with horse whinnies and clanking chains, comes back up as the couples return to the stage in contemporary clothes.

In a fantastic reveal, we learn that we witnessed Day 4 of a present-day “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” fantasy session slash research experiment meant to address the black partner’s lost ability to enjoy sex with their white lovers. Each of the black partners are pathologized – casually diagnosed with OCD, anadonia (or the inability to feel things sexually) and another music-related disorder. The idea is that repressed, racialized trauma can be exorcised through antebellum fantasy role-play. And lots of processing.

Dramaturg Amauta M. Firmino situates one of the play’s central questions between two scholarly accounts of desire and power (Spillers and Jennifer C. Nash): is feeling seen and desired only an objectifying experience, or can it also hold a kind of sensual power? In this absurd fun house of sexual perversion and revelation, could some necessary healing arise?

Act 2 “Process” is an extended parody of therapy-speak and our contemporary moment’s hyper self-aware discourse. Academic collaborators and a mixed black/ Latinx couple themselves, Teá and Patricia (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) passive-aggressively one-up each another’s over-affirmations and eager calls to process, to put it in the space, to “tenderize scars.”

The couples reach various crises and catharses, ricocheting from dead serious to outrageously funny. When Dustin reports that “Gary came” they all do jazz hands. Alana admits that being Mistress MacGregor “unlocked doors” for her and that anally entering Philip was “just hot to me.” Philip (who self identifies as a “hot guy who’s not exactly black or white”) just wants to be Philip, but realizes that his meet-cute with Alanna— as the third sexual partner invited to fuck her while her former white partner watched (a.k.a.: cucking)— has made it so that his “dick likes being seen as a nigger.”

Amidst the outlandish, the play wants them, and the audience, to locate our proximities to power and racial privilege— especially as they may be unhinged from fixed or visible senses of gender and race, and complicated by the intersection of class. Dustin, who appears white, repeatedly insists that he is not white and suffers from a histrionic erasure whenever he’s ‘misrecognized’ as such. He even accuses his black boyfriend Gary of embracing East Harlem gentrification more than he does because he likes the availability of kombucha on tap; he goes on to parrot Gary’s own class-coded preferences: “it’s just so nice to finally have neighbors who read.” Nobody is a clear victim or oppressor in this space. But when Gary finally asks Dustin what exactly he is, if not white, he refuses to answer, effectively exploding their relationship apart. Dustin’s refusal— a privilege in itself— is one that Gary, occupying his “blue black” body has never had. 

Throughout most of the very long group sex-therapy session, Kaneisha stays passively quiet as her partner Jim– now British and in a blue oxford shirt— performs his unchecked straight white male privilege. He’s the one who yelled the safe word as she nearly reached orgasm (nice, guy) and indignantly dismisses the process. It’s important that he was way more palatable on the fake plantation as “Master Jim” when you could at least see him transparently performing his white power to get Kaneisha off.

Kaneisha and Jim’s story emerges as the focus for Act 3: “Exorcise” in which Kaneisha reckons with the demons from girlhood plantation field trips and the ghosts of colonialism that her white boyfriend carries like a “virus.” Jim finally pipes down and Kaneisha speaks at length. Bright house lights flash and fall on the audience as she unpacks her initial attraction to him, both her curious fear of his “pink parts” and his promise of a foreign pleasure.

Akin to John Berger’s famous claim, but with a racial twist, that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” she remembers the synesthetic arousal when “she first tasted [his] eyes on me.” Jim listens, but then unexpectedly and violently shuts her up with a remount of “Master Jim” role-play, whip and all. It’s hard to tell if her cries are in pleasure or pain, and I still didn’t know even after she yelled the safe word. Sobs mutate into laughter as she slowly leaves the bed to put a long white nightgown over her black lace bra. She’s arrived at some ambiguous release, not a resolution; the play ends with her words: “Thank you, baby. For listening.”

After the show Harris disclosed that he “leaned into” his fears and insanity for this play. This explains how an audience might find it challenging to discern the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ intervention that he wants to make from the blaxsploitation-inspired craziness that enacts the perils and pleasures of fluid identities.

In therapist Teá’s words, their research study– like the play itself in some ways– aims to take on the “white supremacist heteronormative capitalist system.” Pinging as it does between porn, parody, advocacy, and exorcism, I wondered about the extent to which Slave Play operates as intervention.

Harris expressed his gleeful astonishment that one of the “whitest theaters in New York” picked up this play. In our trigger-warning happy era, the play was thickly packaged with suggested academic readings, resources on domestic violence, as well as staffed with ‘facilitators’ available to talk in the lobby if you wanted to speak more personally about the questions raised by the play. They offered more self-help oriented readings like recognizing “White Supremacy Culture” in institutions and “Grief is a direct impact of racism: Eight ways to support yourself.”

Next to me sat two theater patrons, a suited white man in his 60s and a somewhat younger white woman. They had dinner reservations at 9:30. But at curtain call, she audibly muttered: “I’d love a drink, but I’ve lost my appetite.” To which he responded: “I have no frame of reference. I can’t imagine myself in a black person’s shoes. I know dual race couples but they seem fine. I mean– the Holocaust? But I don’t think about that daily.”

Needless to say, I don’t think those two grabbed the handout available in the lobby titled So what can I do once I recognize my white privilege? I’m not trying to call anyone out– this is about calling into conversation, rather than calling out (right, Teá and Patricia?). But, that conversation only underscored my doubts of the reach of this play into the spaces that it might want to infiltrate.

I couldn’t stop thinking about James Baldwin’s provocative words from a 1963 interview; smoke swirls as he points an elegant finger back at the camera: “I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it is true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? I am not the victim here. […] But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. So, I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger baby, it isn’t me.”

Baldwin unpacks the insidious powers of fantasy and desire in the formation of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ that comprise an American racial imaginary that’s still with us. Slave Play asks: if fantasy has the power to instantiate, and maintain such debilitating power structures, could it also be the very force required to undo them? And so, Harris and O’Hara – along with a brilliant cast of performers, in an exquisitely bizarre production – imagine an American futurity via facing (or fucking, or fucking with) the pulsing past and, like Baldwin’s disavowal, refuse to offer up solutions, instead, returning its problems back to the audience—at least those interested in the work. 

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