Slave Play, an audacious meditation on sex, race, and class, became the talk of the town when it debuted at New York Theatre Workshop last fall. It turned its young playwright, Jeremy O. Harris, into a literary sensation, and he was profiled by all the major theater publications. The play was directed by one of Harris’ professors at the Yale School of Drama (where he was a student when he wrote it), Robert O’ Hara, himself the celebrated playwright of such shows as Bootycandy and Barbecue.
The two men have known one another since Harris, a precocious freshman in the theater department at DePaul University, was so desperate for works that reflected his own experience as a gay black man that he got hold of O’Hara’s email address and sent a plea for a copy of his play Insurrection: Holding History, about a gay man who time-travels back to the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831. They kept up a correspondence over the years, became closer at Yale, and now their collaboration, Slave Play, is coming to Broadway this fall.
With Harris taking the lead and O’Hara lending essential support, they discussed their play with Broadway Direct, and how Broadway can appeal to more diverse audiences. A condensed version of that conversation follows.
Could one of you describe Slave Play in a way that gives readers a sense of the show without spoiling its surprises?
Jeremy O. Harris: The play takes place at the MacGregor Plantation, where sex, sexuality, and intimacies abound, situated in an intersection of cultural and historical memory.
Where did you get the idea for this show?
Harris: I grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, which was a hotbed of plantations. I mean, I went to a high school where our graduation party took place in a plantation. So plantations have been a part of my imagination forever. As I matured, it became very interesting to me, the ways in which dynamics that I saw play out in and around me in cities like New York and Los Angeles and Chicago had an emotional relationship to what I imagined went on at these plantations in decades past.
So how did the two of you come together on this project?
Harris: When I was working on the play at New York Theatre Workshop, they were very open to letting me take my time in choosing a director. It was between Robert and a couple of other directors, and I was just like, “Hey, guys, I’m nervous about having my teacher direct this, but can we send it to Robert?” And Robert got back to us within 24 hours. The energy with which he spoke to me was so alive. There was no one else I could work with after I spoke to him.
So, Robert, what was it about the play that spoke to you with such immediacy?
Robert O’Hara: I’m always excited to see work that breaks new ground and that asks difficult questions. It was also very important to me that the play have as many people around it who could give not just a directorial eye to it, but a cultural eye to it as well. Very often you see a lot of young white directors directing plays by people of color, and you don’t see as many people of color directing new plays by white playwrights.
Harris: A big part of our collaboration was that Robert is also a writer. Sometimes with a new play by a young writer, everyone in the room feels a sense of ownership. Something I really love about Robert is that when we went into the room, he would protect me. I felt his respect.
What does the move to Broadway mean to you guys?
Harris: What going to Broadway means to me is a chance to remind the world of the very disparate thought patterns and formal innovations of black writers who have come before me and black directors who’ve come before Robert. In the ’70s, there was a bevy of exciting work by black writers that was disrupting the landscape. They were grabbing their audiences by the throats, and I’m really excited to be part of that lineage.
O’Hara: You also can’t diminish the fact that this is a new play. Many times, when you see the black body on Broadway, you see them singing and dancing, and you see them in support of a white protagonist. But here is a young writer who is writing a new play, and I think it says something about what Broadway can be, that the voices on Broadway can be as diverse as the rest of the world.
There’s been a lot of talk about how to bring more diverse audiences to Broadway.
O’Hara: You have to provide audiences with something to see. And new ways to see it.
Harris: Yeah. The theater is too siloed. One of the problems that happened with our generation is that theater became basically made up of the kids who felt they weren’t allowed to be at the cool table in high school so they went into drama club and they got to feel very proud of themselves inside of this safe space for freaks and geeks. I was one of those people. But an art form can’t run itself in a silo. We can’t just stay Drama Club. We have to be Drama Club that is inviting other people to sit at our table. When you look at the shows that are most successful right now, they have a cross-pollination factor that’s undeniable. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda deciding to use his full theater nerdom and intersect that with the world of hip-hop in Hamilton. You can have a Sara Bareilles do Waitress. You can have NeNe Leakes [from The Real Housewives of Atlanta] in Chicago.
O’Hara: Those sorts of things are very exciting.
Harris: It becomes more difficult in the straight play world. But I’m really excited for us to figure out new ways to invite audiences that maybe wouldn’t know about us into our world by inviting people from different pop landscapes so that can we get new blood.
O’Hara: I think Jeremy laid it out very eloquently. Theater has to be kept alive and has to continue to say something. And not just to the people who regularly go to the theater. That’s the death of it if you’re making theater just for theater people.
Janice C. Simpson writes the theater blog Broadway & Me and hosts the BroadwayRadio podcast Stagecraft.