A mulatto slave is sodomized with a large black dildo while in a canopy bed by his master’s wife who is decked out in Madonna-style dominatrix regalia. A white indentured servant fellates the boot of his black overseer after they’ve performed a balletic dance in their underwear. A snarling whip- wielding white overseer is abusive to a female black slave as she cleans his shack while twerking to Rihanna’s “Work.” Welcome to playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ overblown and overrated racial, social and sexual satire, Slave Play. Striving for hilarity, it’s painfully unfunny. The wan shock value is more in the spirit of Mel Brooks than Jean Genet.
For 45-minutes there is crosscutting between these three cheeky scenarios taking place at the Virginia pre-Civil War MacGregor plantation. This portion cryptically plays out as quizzical unsettling black comedy. What’s the point and where is this going are the intrinsic questions. After a jarring transition we find out.
Peppered with the N-word, this cocky extravaganza is by the 30-year-old gay African-American Yale School of Drama graduate Mr. Harris. It was acclaimed by the critical community during its New York Theater Workshop Off-Broadway run last season and has now transferred to Broadway. It’s strained edginess designed to delight the intelligentsia rather than a play grounded in emotional resonance. Ultimately, it’s an au courant hollow event pushing the right provocative cultural buttons that’s been given a spanking production. Spoilers follow and if one wants to be surprised, do not read further.
The three interracial couples are actually undergoing “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” which is intense role play designed to bolster the partner of color’s esteem. This takes place in the present during a days-long therapeutic retreat at a scientific institute presided over by an unctuous lesbian couple spouting psychobabble. For an hour we get a tiresome and familiar group revelatory talkfest laden with characteristic jargon. This is supposed to be a profound comical exploration of race, class and sexuality with serious overtones.
The last 20-minutes of Slave Play is an intense sequence between one of the couples in their bedroom and would succeed as a stand-alone short play due to its bracing realism. This gives a hint of Harris’ talents, but it’s too little too late.
The dynamic company of Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, and Paul Alexander Nolan all offer charismatic broad characterizations, suiting the material.
Director Robert O’Hara’s energetic staging endows the production with needed momentum and the sense of a happening during its draining straight-through two hours and 15 minutes. Byron Easley’s movement results in high caliber choreography, enriching the presentation. Furious physical altercations and jokey and serious simulated sex bits are realized by Claire Warden’s accomplished intimacy and fight direction.
The stage is set with an enveloping mirrored configuration combined with a projection of the plantation and imagery of trees. Scenic designer Clint Ramos’ tantalizing creations offer the promise that we’ll see something unique. Jiyoun Chang’s artful lighting design shifts with the narrative’s changes. Sound designer Lindsay Jones’ work renders his pulsing original score and effects with flair. Witty recreations of 19th century garments and sedate everyday wear are the elements of Dede Ayite’s perfect costume design.
Slave Play is a well-mounted smug faux intellectual stunt. The dramatization of the racial divide in the United States has been handled with much more craft, insight and impact in the past.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017, The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. offered an Off-Off-Broadway revival of two incendiary one-act plays each written in 1969 that they originally presented in 1971. Clarence Young III’s The Perry’s Mission is a violent study of government paranoia set in an urban black-owned bar peopled with a cross section of types. Rosalee Pritchett, by Barbara and Carlton Molette is a wicked fantasia depicting upper-class Southern blacks’ futile attempts to assimilate into white society. These were given an exemplary production, bringing attention to these neglected playwrights, and was a welcome opportunity to experience their unsettling powers.
Slave Play (extended through January 19, 2020)
The Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit http://www.slaveplaybroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes without an intermission