Nothing is what it seems in Jeremy 0. Harris’ startling and explosive Slave Play which investigates where race and sexual relationships intersect. What we have been watching in the play’s opening scenes is role playing on Day Four for Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, “designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” These three couples have chosen to spend a week in this new treatment in order to deal with their anhedonia or inability to feel pleasure which has been a problem for them for some time.
Most of the play is an intense therapy session where the three interracial couples are led through a series of verbal exercises referred to as “Process” by Teá and Patricia, two women psychologists: Jim, a white Englishman, and his American wife, the black writer Kaneisha; Phillip, a tall well-built light-skinned black man, and the somewhat older Alana, a white woman divorced from her husband; and a gay couple, Gary, a dark-skinned black man, and his partner the white actor Dustin. The therapists turn out to be a lesbian couple who are both light-skinned black women with former similar problems. Directed by Robert O’Hara, who has himself written explosive plays on race in America, the cast is intense throughout making the play’s two hours plus running time move quickly, though this second of three parts tends to be talky and overwritten.
Harris’ play appears to be satire rather than realistic as much of the play is in psychobabble: “Manipulating these psychic spaces,” “pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone so that we can tenderize the scars that have started to form,” “hostility must be unpacked and processed,” “Aggression is welcomed into the space as an accelerant to radical breakthrough” and “a good place to reorient and refocus on what brought you here.” And there is a great deal of vocabulary thrown around that will have you scratching your head or wishing you had a dictionary at hand: anhedonia, positionality, alexithymia, epigenetics, etc.
The theory of the play appears to be that “under the constant psychological warfare of the white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist system,” dark-skinned people cannot be themselves or be truly seen as black by their white partners who tend to discount their racial makeup. The sexual dysfunctions of the characters in the play seem to be a metaphor for the distance between the races in America. Unfortunately, Harris makes some of this comical: Dustin who is Caucasian insists he isn’t white. Does he mean that he does not identify with the dominant white society and that he has personally never oppressed black people? Or does it mean that he identifies as Hispanic or some other racial mix so that he does not consider himself white? Not only do we not buy his arguments neither does his partner Gary. On the other hand, Phillip who has always passed in white society discovers that he has never had to deal with his blackness before – even though he and Alana met on an on-line fetish site.
The actors play their roles to the hilt, with their success more or less dependent on their roles. Reticent Englishman Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan, Doctor Zhivago, Bright Day, Escape to Margaritaville) sees his wife Kaneisha as his queen but not as black, while she (Teyonah Parris, If Beale Street Could Talk) has been attracted to his non-Americanness as exotic. Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood, Transfers, BlacKkKlansman) feels that his blackness has been subsumed by Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer, Six Degrees of Separation, Fire and Air) who feels that he himself is non-white.
Phillip (Sullivan Jones, The Winning Side, Hulu’s original drama, The Looming Tower) comes to the realization that as he has always been accepted by white society, neither Alana (Annie McNamara, Elevator Repair Service’s The Sound and the Fury, Gatz) nor anyone else has seen him as black. Even the therapists are contrasting: Teá (Chalia La Tour) is more voluble than Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) and more prone to make mistakes for which she will have to apologize. Harris will have you believe that all of these issues lead to intimacy problems in the bedroom for blacks with white partners.
As written by Harris and directed by O’Hara, the play is both disorienting and disturbing, intentionally so to make its predominantly white audience question their long-held beliefs about race. It is the sort of play that needs both an intimacy and fight director (a role here fulfilled by Claire Warden). The simulated sex and nudity is more than one usually sees in mainstream American drama, though not gratuitously so considering the topic of couples therapy.
Clint Ramos’ minimalist set which is backed by a mirror shows the audience itself which makes us both participants and complicit. The play will impress some, and infuriate others. Nevertheless, it is a Theatrical Experience for those who are willing to go on this wild ride. Incidentally, the title is ultimately a pun, both a play seemingly about slaves on a Southern plantation and a psychological game of role playing to reach reconciliation between the races.
Slave Play (extended through January 13, 2019)
New York Theatre Workshop, 83 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes without an intermission