“My obsession with this play runs deep,” says Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, who will be making her Broadway debut as Kaneisha in Slave Play during its return Broadway engagement at the August Wilson Theatre. “There are so many layers to it. The best plays cause conversations.”
The actor has had plenty of time to dissect the complexities of Jeremy O. Harris’ Tony-nominated play, as Crowe-Legacy was the first actor to take on the role of Kaneisha in the play’s first iteration at Yale School of Drama in 2017.
Beginning with that first presentation at Yale, Slave Play has certainly made a reputation of causing conversation. The show transferred to Broadway and opened in October 2019 at the Golden Theatre, earning 12 Tony Award nominations to make it the most-nominated play in Tony Awards history.
Through three acts, the play follows three interracial couples in an Antebellum-themed sex therapy session, which leads to an explosive exploration of how power dynamics manifest in couples who occupy space across identity lines, most notably race, gender, and sexuality. Each couple does indeed get their own time in the spotlight, making it feel like an ensemble-driven piece, but there’s no denying Kaneisha, as the sole Black female patient, carries the emotional thread—and labor—of the show.
“Kaneisha makes a lot of people very angry for a lot of very valid reasons,” says Crowe-Legacy. “For me, I felt very connected to her. I understood her struggle with trying to love, trying to figure out her sexuality, and trying to understand how to fit in as a Black woman in America being with a white man, and what that means.”
Representation of interracial couples (specifically with a partner who is Black and a partner who is white) in stories on Broadway isn’t an ignored subject—Hairspray’s Penny and Seaweed, Memphis’ Felicia and Huey, and Rent’s Joanne and Maureen are three examples—but the dynamic isn’t typically explored with the rigor and rawness that is experienced in Slave Play. These relationships are also often written through the lens of a white writer, which means certain cultural nuances of its Black characters are left out. With Slave Play, Harris not only examines the identity politics within the relationship but the individual’s perspective that informs their interactions as well.
“I think she’s trying to deal with [her partner’s] whiteness but also deal with her own rage and putting it out in the world,” says Crowe-Legacy. “That’s difficult. One of the things I talked about in rehearsal was James Baldwin’s quote, ‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ I understand that quote very easily, but to be a Black woman in America and be angry is a stereotype. So, to ask for the violence that Kaneisha is asking for, the anger she is asking for—that thing she is requesting—people would question it less if she were a man. They’d question her need to feel something in that way less and her need for violence less.”
This idea calls to mind another quote, one from a 1962 Malcolm X speech, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” With the context of America’s deeply embedded misogynoir, seeing any form of violence or aggression towards Black women depicted onstage has left some Slave Play audience members feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. It’s one of the many layers that has created conversation about the play.
“To take this [desire] of a Black woman and vilify it because she’s not presenting a pretty, well-done, made-up picture of a Black woman is strange to me,” says Crowe-Legacy. “Women are expected to be genteel and soft. If we express anger, it’s like that somehow makes us more manly—or less able to control ourselves even—in a way that I find gross. The thing that she’s asking for, even if she may or may not get too much of it, it’s valid. There are entire subcultures of sex designed around that specific thing.”
While delving into these hefty topics, Crowe-Legacy has made it a priority to work with the intimacy choreographer to clearly show the lines of consent in the play’s third act.
“At the point that she says, ‘No,’ it stops. How it gets there is up to interpretation of the audience. But it doesn’t matter what level of sex you’re at, you can always say ‘No.’ Especially with young people coming to see this show, I want them to know at any point in anything you can say, ‘No.’”
Black women’s mental health is another topic that Crowe-Legacy is passionate about emphasizing. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, “only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it.”
“For Black women, mental illness is not something we talk about or diagnose. We’re supposed to just grin and bear it. To find someone like Kaneisha who is trying, who is going to therapy, who is trying to get the meds, and trying to work on herself is a beautiful thing. Dealing with all of her mental issues is something I just felt like I really understood.”
In the four years Crowe-Legacy has been apart from the character Kaneisha, her career has flourished on both stage and screen, having starred in BLKS at MCC Theater and If Pretty Hurts Then Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka at Playwrights Horizons, as well as Epix’s Godfather of Harlem and Netflix’s recent adaptation of Passing. All of these experiences have contributed to Crowe-Legacy’s growth as an artist, but also have kept her extremely busy. When the second Broadway run of Slave Play was announced, Crowe-Legacy was thrilled that the timing lined up so well so she could reprise her role with a new perspective.
“When I first did Slave Play, I was tired and stressed out,” she says. “There was a manicness to everything I did because I was feeling so much all the time. There is a groundedness I feel now. [Kaneisha and I] can be in conversation a little more. It doesn’t feel quite as overwhelming as it did back then.”
In fact, Crowe-Legacy has developed self-care practices that help her navigate the role, like relying on the physical ground to support her through the experience.
“Every time I run the show I lay on the ground. It’s a process of giving it all back to the earth. All of the pressure, emotion, trauma, and anything I might be carrying goes back to the earth because the earth can carry it and hold it when I can’t.”
Crowe-Legacy acknowledges the immense responsibility in playing this role, and is excited that she is joining the lineage of women who have played Kaneisha in New York City. Although she hasn’t spoken to Teyonah Parris who played Kaneisha during the 2018 Off-Broadway production, she was able to express her admiration to Joaquina Kalukango, who stepped into Kaneisha’s shoes for the play’s Broadway premiere.
“I’ve also had some conversations with Eboni Flowers, who understudied the role in 2019 and is for this run,” says Crowe-Legacy. “She had this beautiful perspective of not only performing it and going through the emotions of the play, but also watching it in the audience and seeing the reactions of the different audiences, and how that changes the play.”
As for different audiences with different reactions, the company is aware that 2020 and all that the year entailed will certainly bring new audience members or familiar audiences with new perspectives. They are ready for even more conversation that this history-making play may make—after all, the best plays cause conversation.
“When I’m on stage, I’ll be there in conversation with the audience,” says Crowe-Legacy. “You [as an audience member] are a part of the show. You are in it and if you choose not to be in anymore, that’s fair, but I hope you stick around to the end because the journey of the play is very important.”
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