Slave Play

It’s difficult to talk about Slave Play without giving away its conceit — in fact, it’s damn near impossible. If watching the show unsullied is something you prefer, then know this much: at the beginning, it’s about three sexual encounters steeped in a racial power play in the antebellum south. At the end, it’s…well, it’s still about that, in a way, and you may find yourself needing a stiff drink afterwards.

Written by Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara, the show hits Broadway on October 6, 2019. It’s charged — sexually, politically, racially — and it gets to the heart of some deeply uncomfortable facets of trauma in different forms. It is not, however, a neatly packaged instructional on how to navigate these issues; in fact, it feels antithetical to “the discourse” we’ve grown used to. It lacks a linear solution, or set of solutions, to what may elsewhere be presented as an immediately solvable problem (or even an immediately identifiable one). To talk about how or why is to talk about its true nature, which, if you’re spoiler-cautious, the show reveals a mere thirty minutes in after frequently tipping its hand. It isn’t a reveal for the characters, but rather a mechanism by which to situate and re-locate the audience’s discomfort.

And it is discomforting. It needs to be, because it does what so few modern stories about American slavery ever manage to: it treats slavery as a thing of the present. Warning: spoilers ahead.

The show is almost farcical at first. Its backdrop is little more than a series of mirrors — do you get it? The play is watching us — though curiously, the very top of the backdrop is adorned with lyrics from Rihanna’s Work, a song which appears and re-appears ad nauseum as a muffled, distant, anachronistic memory. The song first plays mere minutes in, as slave girl Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) goes from sweeping the plantation to twerking rhythmically and romantically, while her overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) saunters over to her and engages her in D/S power play. He’s the one with the whip, though he’s reluctant to be called “master,” or to even admonish Kaneisha. A good white appears. 

The well-documented horrors of the era make this sexual romp feel peculiar, and it isn’t the only scenario of its kind. As Kaneisha and Jim are wheeled off-stage through the giant mirrors (mid-fuck, no less), the plantation owner’s wife, Mistress Alana (Annie McNamara) appears on an ornate bed. She instructs her well-spoken, light-skinned slave Phillip (Sullivan Jones) to play the fiddle, but she detests his penchant for Beethoven. She wants “negro music,” and she in turn wants to dominate him with the large, black dildo she inherited from her mother. Strange.  

The third and final scenario complicates matters even further, as Black slave-driver Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) stops white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) mid-labor so he can take advantage of him and turn the era’s racial-sexual dynamic on its head. Dustin submits to Gary and licks his boots. Gary cums almost immediately — and then he cries. Dustin comforts him.

The atmosphere is uncanny, though before we’ve had a chance to absorb it, the first two couples are wheeled back on stage, and the show’s bizarre exhibitions continue all at once. Kaneisha wants to be dominated. Jim wants to oblige, but he’s reluctant — so much that, rather than calling her a “dirty negress” as she desires, he yells out a safe word: “Starbucks.”

BEEP. A buzzer. BEEP. Another one. BEEP. A third, as red lights hit all three couples from above, and two modern women, one Black and one white-passing, appear and congratulate the couples on their progress. Jim, upset, lets his southern accent slip in favor of his native British. As it turns out, this obnoxiously-staged sexcapade making a mockery of chattel slavery is day four of a week-long therapeutic experiment. Its focus is Black partners in mixed-race relationships regaining their lost sex drive. 

The frantic absurdity of the first act is traded for a more grounded second, as the two modern women — Yale students Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) — welcome the six “performers” to a semi-circle of chairs. The two women speak academically. Their lines have a near-satirical focus on the psychological process; the word “process” shows up several dozen times, like an obsession. Teá and Patricia’s experiment hasn’t been peer-reviewed, so it occasionally feels like they’re shooting in the dark. Though as soon as the six subjects are allowed to speak — or rather eight subjects; Teá and Patricia are a mixed-race couple themselves — targets begin to manifest, spawning directly in the paths of emotional bullets.

The characters are each boxed in to specific types, but as they take turns putting words to their experiences, the nature of those types is placed under a microscope. Kaneisha, a headstrong Black woman, is married to Jim, whose outsidership to American racism leaves him unable to fully engage with it (and leaves Kaneisha unable to see him as fully “white” in a U.S. context). Conversely, Phillip’s lighter complexion and elite schooling place him in self-identity limbo. He’s neither “Black enough” nor “white enough” for the spaces around him. His significant other Alana, a well-to-do white woman, trades in the language of social justice, but her perspective on white womanhood is severely blinkered. And finally, Gary is a dark-skinned Black man who subtly rejects social Blackness, while Dustin, his partner of ten years and a white-passing person of color, rejects the label of whiteness in equal measure. 

The subjects accept and reject the experiment to varying degrees, and they aren’t afraid to mention it. They often find themselves at their partners’ throats (or at each other’s throats, as tempers fly in every direction), but where the play shines is in the subtleties underscoring these boisterous, larger-than-life moments. The second act breathes and allows for plenty of humor (its skewering of each stereotype is clap-out-loud hilarious) though just as often, it yanks the audience back into the characters’ orbits amidst moments of self-discovery. Within the group-therapy framework, these discoveries mutate into moments of confrontation.

Alana, for instance, is a ridiculous stereotype — she’s more engaged with her notes than with Philip and makes sure to mention The New Yorker — so it’s pleasing to watch her fumble as she attempts to dress down the white male participants without acknowledging the space she occupies. And yet, Annie McNamara imbues the character with a genuine, starry-eyed affection for Philip. That she fumbles in her attempts to make him happy is far less enjoyable. 

Or take Dustin, a light-skinned brown man who speaks of “erasure” without understanding what parts of Gary he himself erases. Dustin’s main concern as a stage actor is getting to auditions on time — his Harlem residence with Gary is a subway dead zone — and he insists that wanting to move has nothing to do with racial demographics. Though in rejecting the label of “white,” he seldom considers how his proximity to whiteness impacts his partner, who’s never had the option of being anything but Black. James Cusati-Moyer imbues Dustin with all the makings of that one theatre kid you know. His tonality. His gesticulations. His overt references to theatre games, like some performative in-joke. But beneath this showy caricature lies a lost man grasping for the straws of identity, both as an individual and as the less-than-considerate partner of a man searching for the same; Ato Blankson-Wood’s self-loathing Gary feels just as lost. 

Each character exists on a spectrum between Blackness and whiteness, and they each have a unique relationship to it. While the antebellum role play allows them to engage in master-slave dynamics, it also threads the needle between the trauma of the past and the traumas that exist in the present. The characters’ most intimate troubles are expounded upon and magnified by the weight of history. Their most socially pervasive problems are grounded within deeply personal psychoses. Cuckoldry is explored both as fetish, and as desire to control Blackness (another’s Blackness, and one’s own); rejections of whiteness and Blackness are seen both through a lens of economics, and through a lens of self-worth. The very act of racial role play becomes both personal exploration, and a sprawling roadmap to navigate centuries of racial power. 

Yet on the surface, the unpacking of these issues is given none of the aforementioned framing (despite Teá and Patricia’s best, most verbose efforts). It’s all simple. Conversational. It plays out as petty squabbles. As posture. As hesitant movements across the stage, and as moments when the characters are at their most flustered and inarticulate. 

After the hour-long therapy session that is Act II, the show returns to a single couple — Kaneisha and Jim — for one of the most gut-wrenchingly discomforting scenes to grace the Broadway stage. An anxiety-stricken Kaneisha attempts to unpack (this word is key) the contradiction of her desire and disgust for Jim, as her foreign, “exotic” husband, and as a white man who her own enslaved ancestors might abhor. For Kaneisha, the experiment isn’t just a means to explore sexual role play, but a time capsule, allowing her to compress and subsequently unpack the centuries of racial violence that now live in her, as the only Black child on her class field trips to the very plantations that birthed her inherited trauma. 

Were the final scene to close with Kaneisha’s backstory exposition, it would be something of a storybook ending — to whatever degree a show like Slave Play can even have one. Though as she re-iterates the purpose of the experiment — for Jim to listen to her needs as a Black woman in a world of whiteness — the purpose of the play begins to crystalize, in moments of horror, as Jim attempts to rekindle their violent fantasy.

Whether or not it works this time is an open question. It veers uncomfortably toward assault (performing such a scene is no easy feat, so kudos to Kalukango and Nolan), but the discomfort is compounded by the fact that during the preceding two hours, the show has dug its fingers deep into the mud and come up with no comforting answers. It’s all blood and dirt and bones. Which is, in essence, the point: Slave Play is not a search for answers, despite its characters’ journeys. It is an attempt to extrapolate the true nature of the questions themselves, while painting a picture of just how difficult the actual solutions might be, whenever one might find the strength to move towards them. 

“The work,” as it pertains to tackling racism, is as much about exploring the horrors of the past as it is about undoing them in the present. Dismantling white supremacy demands not only acknowledgement, but a deep, inside-out understanding of its true nature — an understanding that its ugliness is foundational to our society. That it permeates our bones, and our very being. That there is no tackling racism without getting our hands uncomfortably filthy. 

Whatever first impression the mirrored backdrop may give, it has a curious effect by the end. Given its placement, the sections all the way at the back stare constantly at those all the way in the front, and vice versa. This being Broadway, the racial demographics of the more and less expensive sections are about what you’d expect — more white faces down below, with more people of color up top — and while the show never calls overt attention to it, this silent disparity is the very premise upon which the show operates. It requires, and even demands scrutiny of the silent. The unspoken. The traditional. And it does so by re-writing the contract according to which we experience slavery stories in the first place. 

Whether resilience-through-horror in Roots or 12 Years A Slave, or the escapist fantasy of Django Unchained, the modern slavery story is often predicated on watching it at a remove. Its context is either a reflection or re-contextualization of the past, and the past alone. The past was terrible. The past was ludicrous. The past was — it has ended. Yet so few popular slavery tales deal with, say, the Reconstruction era, wherein the shackles of slavery still remained despite the institution being outlawed; so few thread the needle between these past horrors and the world that exists today. The show by no means explores the legalese, but it cuts to the heart of the psychology of living, and being, in a world predicated on racial terror the kind that burrows itself deep into one’s subconscious.

As its characters attempt to unpack, the drama stems from their difficulty (and often, inability) to do so. At first, Slave Play is a sex farce that demands you bear witness to an eerie defiling of history. Then, that eeriness becomes necessary — to understand not only history, but our collective place in it.

It’s exposed. It’s vulnerable. It’s equal parts hilarious and devastating. It invites the audience to partake in the impossible task of unpacking, and unpacking, and unpacking, exhaustively stripping away the layers of modern racial discourse and psychology until all that’s left are raw nerves and lingering, phantom traumas — until we’re left with no choice but to reckon with them.

It’s theatre at its most confrontational.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: