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Jeremy O. Harris: Slave Play

Words by
Darol Olu Kae

After his debut at the New York Theater Workshop with Slave Play, playwright Jeremy O. Harris (American, B. 1989) recently premiered his latest play, Daddy, at the Vineyard Theater, New York.

The playwright and actor Jeremy O. Harris, a third-year student at Yale’s School of Drama, recognizes and approaches both his own psyche as well as the collective psyche of America (via the theatre space and its mostly white audience) as critical sites of investigation where difficult and uncomfortable truths can be explored and laid bare. Last year, Harris made his professional debut at the New York Theatre Workshop with Slave Play (directed by Robert O’Hara), an unflinching exploration of how the afterlife of racial slavery in the United States has stained the notion of intimacy for interracial couples living in 21st-century America. As Harris explains, “There is a scar in [America] that we pretend like it doesn’t exist and we think we can ignore this major wound.” Slave Play is an uncomfortable and disturbing intervention into America’s troubling past; it seeks to acknowledge and treat the violence and collective trauma that the wound of slavery has left in its wake, for black and white people alike.
With works like Slave Play and its 2019 follow-up, Daddy, Harris looks to ignite new conversations about race and sexuality in a way that considers the lingering presence of history. With a cogent analysis of the power dynamics at play between interracial couples, Harris interrogates what scholar Saidiya Hartman aptly calls a “history that hurts,” and enlists the theatre as a means of helping to “associate us back with ourselves and have a different conversation” about race, sexuality and slavery in America.

Slave Play intentionally engenders discomfort in its audience without the promise of relief. It does this by placing three interracial couples in the American South, specifically Virgina, during the Antebellum era. The core tension in Slave Play orbits around a certain breach of intimacy where black people no longer receive sexual pleasure from their white partners. To address this problem, Harris subverts audience expectations and desires by enlisting the services of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, an unorthodox therapy process designed to help black partners re-engage on an intimate level with their white partners. The play asks us to consider how the violence of slavery endures today—but more than that, it points to the more pressing and pervasive question of how slavery has informed our intimate politics. When so much violence anticipates us, is love possible? These questions are not simply offered for the characters to consider, but extend beyond the stage to the audience members as well. When the whole world is a stage, everyone is a character subject to critique. “Everyone who’s watching [the performance] is fully a part of a system that is consuming and profiting off of Black bodies and Black identity,” explains Harris. “The play does not allow you to escape that fact.”
Daddy, meanwhile, considers interracial sexual relationships from the vantage point of contemporary Bel Air. Directed by Danya Tamor and starring Ronald Peet and Alan Cummings, the play chronicles the thorny relationship between a young, ascendant black artist, an older, wealthy white art collector, and the artist’s strong-willed and disapproving mother. Featuring a full gospel choir and a functioning onstage pool, Daddy is at once provocative and playful—but as with Slave Play, the work finds Harris unpacking complex notions surrounding identity, intimacy and power.
In both practice and effect, Harris’ work extends beyond the theatre space. His recent success has drawn the interest of Hollywood: he served as a co-writer for A24’s upcoming film Zola, based on a viral Twitter thread by the former stripper Aziah Wells (aka Zola) recalling an eventual two-day road trip through Florida with a sex worker, her boyfriend, and her pimp. He still acts occasionally, and is set to appear in his own next Off Broadway play, title and timing as-yet-unannounced. He has also struck up friendships and collaborations in the fashion world, among them Gucci and Telfar, whose Fall/Winter 2019 show opened with a Harris-penned soliloquy written on the show’s theme of “Country.”
For the time being, however, Harris’ main focus remains his playwriting. Through the lens of sexuality and fantasy, he continues to focus on issues of race, power and collective trauma as a way of creating an environment where Blackness—which is to say, “a social relationship of dominance and abjection”—is radically illuminated and turned against those who benefit from it, refusing to differentiate between its active and passive benefactors.

Jeremy O. Harris (American, B. 1989) is a New York-based playwright.
Photo credit: Matthew Leifheit.

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