Karen and I saw *Slave Play* on Broadway on 10/17/19. It was a hit downtown and moved to Broadway. I'm always curious about a show that's described as "divisive" and "polarizing" - - we were able to get cheap tickets, so we jumped on it. A friend of a friend saw it a few weeks ago and described it as the worst play she had ever seen, which made me want to see it even more!
Warning: this review is going to have many spoilers. I can't think of a way to explain/discuss the show without spoilers.
*Slave Play* is a new play by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O'Hara. It has a perfectly balanced cast of eight: two Black women, two white women, two Black men, two white men. The play can be split into thirds:
The costuming in the first part was classic 19th century American antebellum style. With deliberate departures...
The first scene (of the first part) was for a Black female slave and a white male overseer. Their conversation was stilted, then tense, then things went in a sexual direction, which was more or less consensual. Karen noticed a number of anachronistic slips in the dialogue in this scene, I didn't pick up on them...!
The second scene was for a white female slave owner and a Black male slave. This scene was front-loaded with the sexual content and it was more overtly funny, maybe because of the anachronistic thigh-high black Latex boots the woman was wearing.
The third scene was for a Black male overseer and white male worker. We heard the N word for the first time in this scene, used by the Black man. I was waiting for that word and it was a relief to not have to wait anymore. This scene had more of the power struggle from the first scene, but it had the twist of the Black man in the position of power. Of course things got very heated and it was perplexing to see the men wearing contemporary underwear (I think they were Hanes) under their 19th century costumes.
This scene came to its (ahem) climax and the two other couples appeared onstage, also having sex with each other. Two doors opened on the upper level of the set, revealing two facilitators, a Black woman and a white woman. They said something along the lines of, "Yes, very good! Good work, thank you!" The three couples composed themselves and left the stage.
The two facilitators set up eight yellow metal folding chairs - - one for each of them and a pair for each of the couples. The couples came onstage, wearing contemporary clothes. The scenes we were watching were part of a therapy workshop for couples where one partner is Black and the other is white. The premise is that there will be trouble in this type of relationship until you explicitly address and work through the historical baggage of slavery.
The facilitators get the couples to talk about their experience doing the scenes, how it made them feel, how what they were improvising was informed by their life experience and their relationship with their partners. The Black woman from the first scene was mostly silent, she was having a hard time.
Karen does a beautiful job of articulating an aspect of the therapy session: "Each Black character has a 'breakthrough' of understanding how the legacy of slavery and the mythology of Black bodies is causing their particular sexual dysfunction. The specific couples were apparently chosen by the therapists for this particular quality." Also the white characters see themselves as "post racial" and deny that race is a factor in their relationship.
The final scene was for the couple who started the show, the Black woman and the white man. It started with a long monologue for the woman, more or less saying that it was wrong for her to be with a white man in general, and with her husband in particular. It ended with the man turning the tables on her and raping her. It was not presented as a therapeutic exercise, and it was not consensual.
The man was undone by this, and the woman seemed to be released from her blocked state. It's unclear whether or not they'll stay together.
* * *
Clearly the play was written to stimulate discussion and self-analysis, and it was a success in that regard. It was fascinating and disturbing, and I'll be thinking about it for a long time. It made me think of the work of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, the writer/director of *Funny Games,* *Caché,* *The Piano Teacher,* *Amour,* etc. He does this complex thing where he puts violence in his films and makes the audience member feel responsible for the violence happening onscreen. This play did something similar, it made me feel guilty for being aroused. That's very complex.
This confrontation of the audience was reinforced by the set design and lighting design - - the set was entirely mirrored, and at key moments the lights shone onto the audience so we could look at ourselves (thankfully Karen and I were sitting up too high to literally see ourselves). In the final scene the set turned into itself, so the mirrors were reflecting the two characters back onto themselves, that was an interesting switch.
But the play was not a complete success in terms of writing. Karen put it perfectly: the problem was the tone. It's tricky to navigate these shifts of tone, from drama to comedy to sexy to disturbing, and Harris did not navigate those shifts well. The second part was the most troublesome, because he portrayed the two facilitators as a parody of politically correct therapists. If they're ridiculous then it's hard to see the issues they're discussing as being serious.
It's an ambitious play, I had the feeling that Harris bit off more than he could chew. It had me wondering how it ended up on Broadway: it was like *Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.* It's not really a Broadway play! It's perfect for an off Broadway theatre company in a smaller space, for a short run, where the audience is more or less self-selected. A Broadway play (to me) has the connotation of being an option for anyone going to a Broadway show. Can you imagine out of towners saying, "What should we see when we're in town, honey? *Phantom*? Or *Slave Play*?"