Like all good stories, it started at a party.
“It was a party of very intelligent writers,” Slave Play’s playwright Jeremy O. Harris remembers. “Someone told a story about some complex sex he had with his last partner and I asked, ‘What if your partner asked you to engage with the same level of kink, but around race?’ He got really uncomfortable, and was like, ‘Absolutely not.’ I said, ‘That’s so weird, because you said you believe in people having agency and ownership of the sex they’re having, and being able to articulate to their partner any of their deepest, darkest secrets.’ In that moment, I realized that this is a play. This is a really good play.”
Harris’ instinct was spot-on. After a provocative Off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop in 2018, Slave Play transferred to Broadway in 2019, making history as the most Tony Award-nominated play ever with 12 nominations. Both productions received a New York Times Critics Pick.
The three-act play (with no intermission) follows three interracial couples in an Antebellum-themed sex therapy session, leading to an explosive exploration of how power dynamics manifest in the couples’ relationships.
Harris initially developed Slave Play during his first year in Yale’s graduate playwriting program, and soon after headed the Eugene O’Neill Center for a reading, which marked when director Robert O’Hara joined the team. O’Hara stayed with the play through its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs, earning a 2020 Tony Award nomination.
“When I first started to read the play, I was like, ‘This is completely crazy! Why do they always send me the totally f–ked up plays?’” remembers O’Hara. After reading through to the second act—where the twist of the play is revealed, O’Hara understood the intention. “The first act had done exactly what it was supposed to do, which was just sort of disorient me and go, ‘What the f–k am I watching?’”
DeDe Ayite, Slave Play’s Tony Award-nominated costume designer, had a similar reaction when joining the NYTW production. “I looked at the script, and I was like, ‘Intriguing! I have questions.’ That’s always important, though, because if you have all the answers, then why are you doing the work?”
Slave Play is no stranger to the concept of “work.” Not only is Rihanna’s Grammy-nominated “Work” featured prominently during the play, but it expects rigorous intellectual work from its cast, creatives, design team, and perhaps most importantly, its audience.
“There’s work that has to be done on both sides of the lobby,” says O’Hara. “I always say, ‘Everyone is welcome, but no one is safe.’ I’m not here to provide you with comfort and entertainment. No one is walking through my life making sure my gay, Black body is entertained and comfortable.”
Harris knew from that original party conversation that the themes he’d be examining in Slave Play would leave audience members with a level of discomfort and lots of questions to delve into as they exited the theatre. At the NYTW run, post-show counselors were present in the lobby for those who want professional guidance as they process their thoughts and emotions.
“[I wanted to explore] these complex themes around what it means to be a minoritarian body, specifically a Black body, in our country that are so psychologically under-explored because of how white supremacy has made the pursuit of this knowledge constantly under attack,” says Harris.
Ayite agrees, “I don’t think this play is meant to give you all of the answers. I think that’s what throws people off, or what they wrestle with, in terms of the last scene. We give space for a variety of experiences that come from that last moment.”
In a play full of jaw-dropping moments, the last moment may be the most controversial, and certainly, the most talked about. This scene has also led to accusations of Harris hating Black women.
“This whole play was me thinking about the Black women in my life who were like, ‘Jeremy, write a play for me where I can be a Blanche DuBois, or a Miss Julie,’” says Harris. “I wanted to write something that was worthy of my friends who are great tragic actresses. They didn’t want a comedy. They wanted a tragedy. They wanted a drama. They wanted something experimental, something complex, something erotic.”
Despite Harris’ intentions, Slave Play became the target of backlash through various articles, a social media campaign, and a Change.org petition calling to shut down the Off-Broadway production. Plus, an image featuring the Antebellum-themed fantasy role-play of the first act was published in The New York Times without context, which also unleashed a wave of criticism.
“We weren’t prepared for the positive or negative reaction,” says O’Hara. “We had Madonna and Whoopi Goldberg and all these different celebrities and newspapers giving us a lot of love, but also there were death threats, so we had to get security. At some point, we all had to block it all out. You have to protect yourself and you have to protect the work.”
“I was just expecting some kids at NYU who usually spend their weekends going to concerts but might decide to spend one night seeing a play,” says Harris about his intended audience. “My goal was to get people who couldn’t afford to see plays to see plays.”
“Jeremy shielded us from a lot of it because he put his body out there in front of his play in a way that I don’t think most playwrights do,” says O’Hara.
While Harris protected his company externally, he and O’Hara both focused on creating a safe and comfortable working space internally. This meant company discussions and check-ins, as well as an intimacy director, separate from the creative team, who was available for any company member to talk about what they needed in the space to feel safe and supported.
“Our foundation was that we knew what we were doing, we were clear on why we were doing it, and we were clear on who we were,” says O’Hara. “We really concentrated on the play and centered ourselves in joy.”
O’Hara was also very intentional about having a team in the rehearsal room whose demographic is rarely seen as the majority in a commercial theatre space—Black women and women of color. Both assistant directors, the lead stage manager, as well as Ayite, were women of color in leadership roles.
“There was this beauty of living and existing and being given space to create with Robert and a team that allows you to explore and not judge the process or the story,” says Ayite.
Even before the polarizing response from the Off-Broadway audiences, Broadway wasn’t a thought that entered the minds of Harris or O’Hara.
“Broadway felt like the thing furthest from my mind, and the least interesting thing for me,” says Harris. “[I told lead producer Greg Nobile,] ‘I don’t care about Broadway. If we want to continue telling this story, maybe go to some huge Black theatre in Brooklyn, or we go uptown. I will make an audience anywhere we go.”
O’Hara was so surprised by the idea of heading to Broadway, he didn’t believe Nobile when he announced it on a phone call. “I said, ‘You’re crazy! That makes no sense, whatsoever—y’all obviously got some money y’all want to lose. I don’t believe a word coming out of your mouth, and I won’t believe it until there’s a contract.’ He had to call me back and tell me he was serious,” recalls O’Hara.
Nobile, indeed serious of his plans, invited Harris to join him in the pitch meeting at Shubert Theaters. When the Shubert team conveyed their reservations about Slave Play finding a Broadway audience, Harris retorted with a list of “radical plays” that had already been presented in Shubert-owned theatres, including Look Back in Anger, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and The Rose Tattoo.
Harris’ recitation impressed the team, and Slave Play was offered the Golden Theatre, a week after Harris’ grandpa—named Golden Harris—passed away. If that wasn’t cosmic enough, the Golden Theatre was at the time where Harris had seen his one and only Broadway play.
With a grandfather-blessed theatre secured and lessons from Off-Broadway at the front of their mind, Harris and O’Hara both agreed they had to be proactive in their approach of contextualizing the play before audiences entered the theatre.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to go to Broadway, we’re going to do it right. We’re going to try and change something,’” says Harris.
“Jeremy and I really demanded that we see every piece of artwork, that we see how they were talking about the play, that we have Black Out Nights, that we have people come in for discussions, and that we have EDI training—all that stuff was absolutely necessary,” says O’Hara. “I said, ‘We have an obligation. We can celebrate the work we’re doing, but also know that there are consequences to the work that we’re doing and that we have the audacity to tell a story about slavery in a commercial venue and sell tickets.’”
O’Hara was resolute in not having any actors dress up as enslaved people for marketing. “It’s unnecessary. You have to be very intentional with how you use the word ‘slave’ and the imagery that you use after you use that word. No person of color needs to walk down the street and see someone dressed as a slave in order for you to sell them a ticket.’”
Like his original goal Off-Broadway, Harris prioritized bringing new audiences to Broadway—including hosting Black Out Nights to encourage attendance of Black theatregoers as well as buying tickets with his own money to give to those who couldn’t afford Broadway ticket prices.
“The only reason I was ever able to see the one Broadway show I saw was because I got a free ticket,” says Harris. “We don’t have a country that has a generous spirit socially. We live in a ‘GoFundMe’ society, so when I found out how much a Broadway playwright makes, I was like I will ‘GoFund’ some people and maybe other people will feel the need to go fund some tickets for young people to go see this.”
While Harris and O’Hara focused their efforts on new audiences, Slave Play caught the eye of Tony Awards nominators. Despite its history-making 12 Tony nominations for the long-postponed 2020 awards ceremony, it didn’t win any.
Still, with a second Broadway engagement underway at the August Wilson Theatre, plus a run at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, it seems like Slave Play’s legacy was never about awards.
“I think Slave Play changed Broadway’s landscape in showing that you can actually invest in a voice that is difficult and complicated—that’s new on Broadway,” says O’Hara. “Broadway is usually trying to please the most people. When you’re trying to please the most people, basically, you’re trying to please white people.”
This return engagement comes on the heels of Broadway theatres reopening, the events of 2020 fresh on everyone’s minds, including the racial reckoning across industries that was sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think the events of 2020 sparked for everyone, and mostly non-Black people, the need to do the work in search of truth and the search of seeing the other,” says Ayite. “I hope this time it takes it much further, that it actually translates to real life and the way that people are treated. It’s less about, ‘Oh, this is exciting theatre, but more: how do I create change in communities?’”
Creating tangible change is an idea that’s in Harris’ mind as Slave Play heads across the country to the West Coast. With an initial lineup featuring only one woman playwright, Harris reached out to CTG with plans to withdraw Slave Play from their programming to make space for a woman-identifying playwright. After some productive conversations, CTG has committed to a 2022-2023 season with exclusively women-identifying or non-binary playwrights. “I’ve been really impressed with their willingness to roll up their sleeves and address it,” says Harris.
Harris is also excited for a full-circle moment that the L.A. run will provide. “I spent my 20s in L.A., so I’m exhilarated by the chance to finally show people who knew me as the doorman at a nightclub or the art gallery assistant, who was always talking about doing theatre, that I actually did it and you guys helped me get here.”
Sounds like a party is in order, and who knows what play will be inspired from this one.