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Written by Jeremy O. Harris; directed by Robert O'Hara
Performances through January 19, 2020
Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Although Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play is raw, angry and, at times, illuminating, it’s most discomfiting that Harris has couched it in familiar tropes that—far from implicating the audience in its dramatic deliberations—undercut his own arguments.
The play begins on a plantation, as “massa” Jim and slave Kaneisha engage in a verbal dance followed by intercourse. Meanwhile, the slave-owner’s sex-starved wife Alana demands one of the house slaves, Philip, to enter her bedroom to play some Beethoven on his violin; she soon sets upon him with a large black dildo. In a third location, Gary, a black male slave, and Dustin, a white male indentured servant, flirt before engaging in some sexual play.
It turns out these three couples are role-playing in a study led by Teá and Patricia, a lesbian couple, to discover how and why passion can leave interracial relationships. The middle act of Slave Play consists of discussions among all four couples about race and racism, sexuality and gender. This is followed by an epilogue between Kaneisha and Jim, who have violent sex as the characters they played at the beginning. We are left to wonder if the dynamics of their relationship have shifted.
Too much of Slave Play is pitched at absurd, almost hysterical levels; so much so that, when Harris makes pertinent points, they are too often buried under his caricatures. The opening segments especially play out like an SNL (or Mad TV) skit, and the ensuing psychoanalytic conversations are right out of an average sitcom. Only the end is truly disturbing, but after two-plus hours of alternately engrossing and enervating material, that final scene feels gratuitously tacked-on.
Director Robert O’Hara’s gimmicky production gets its focus from Clint Ramos’ distinctive set, in which mirrors at the back stage wall force audience members to become participants and not mere spectators. Images of a plantation are projected onto the balcony, which, when seen in the mirrors, provide an arresting visual reminder of the sordid history the play covers.
In a play this physically and mentally taxing—even in the saggy middle section with the counselors—the acting is impressively energetic. But the anchor of this excellent octet is Joaquina Kalukango, whose Kaneisha runs the gamut from sexually free slave to tough but scarred modern woman. Kaulkango even does her best to sell the fuzzy and preachy final sequence, giving Slave Play a sliver of humanity amid the platitudes.
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY
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