“Nuh body touch me you nuh righteous”—Rihanna’s words from her song “Work” in silver balloon letters top the mirrored back wall of Clint Ramos’s set and the song bursts in over speakers on Kaneisha’s (Teyonnah Parris) consciousness as she ineffectually sweeps bright green Astroturf, costumed as a slave from some vaguely titillating 19th century melodrama.
Hip hop has a solid history of slipping piercing commentary into hooks, beats, and rhymes, but playwright Jeremy O. Harris takes sly delight in adding new layers to Rihanna’s chorus by bringing her song into the theatrical space and multiplying the meanings of the anonymous man’s command to “work.” “Work, work, work, work, work, work/He said me haffi/Work, work, work, work, work, work!/He see me do mi/Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt!/So me put in/Work, work, work, work, work, work,” plays while his character compulsively twerks, the antebellum “Big House” of the “McGregor Plantation” ingeniously reflected behind her.
Harris’s Slave Play makes me wonder if there is a newish genre to be identified here—something I might describe as “American Hyper-Farce/Meta-Satire.” This is partly the effect of Harris’s collaboration on the project with director Robert O’Hara, whose own writing in his play Bootycandy shares Harris’s bright, pop aesthetic, unrestrained humor, and ironic metatheatricality. This dramaturgical mode has touches of classic absurdism—the gloriously over-the-top farce reminiscent of Ubu Roi, The Bald Soprano, or The Skin of Our Teeth—but adds a distinctly U.S. pop culture contemporaneity, and interlaces it with self-aware commentary in the contrasting form of realist satire, in which the replication of natural patterns of speech and physical tics may be only barely exaggerated by comparison to a traditional U.S. living-room drama. As a whole, the combination elicits a response where spontaneous, delightfully shocked laughter at the outrageous comedy is followed by a deeper discomfort that is not so easily released. The genre seems particularly effective at excavating race in America—and especially the enduring legacy of slavery.
The inclusion of a specific line of Rihanna’s verse as part of the set is Ramos’s invention, but it is clear why the assertion of the power to grant—or withhold—sexual access (rendered in Jamaican patois) was selected to stand over the action of this play. Harris leans heavily into the desire and denial inherent in Freud’s notion of the fetish, and Amauta M. Firmino’s dramaturg note cites the “destructive sensuality” of the captive body, identified by Hortense Spillers, and also Jennifer C. Nash who, in The Black Body in Ecstasy, contemplates the erotic pleasure of racial objectification, “even when (and perhaps precisely because) racialization is painful.”
Slave Play taps into the unsettling reality that sexual fantasy reveals our hidden obsessions, and that in the U.S. those obsessions are heavily racialized. (Evidence for this unsettling reality can be found in data from Pornhub, discussed by Maureen O’Connor as “the Kinsey Report of Our Time” in a June 12th 2017 piece for New York magazine: three porn searches unique to the U.S., for instance, are “big booty Latina,” “big black dick,” and “ebony.”)
The play and the production unflinchingly steps into the most wince worthy aspects of America’s profoundly conflicted id and ego. It takes a cast and director who possess a firm affinity with the playwright to commit to the work’s tonal leaps and hairpin turns and to find their way into both the ludicrous humor and deep vulnerability required in performance.
One aspect of this genre that I particularly appreciate is the dexterity and courage it demands of skilled actors to play physical comedy, rapid-fire verbal wit, and sincere, nuanced emotion all in one piece. It is especially gratifying to witness the opportunity it gives female actors like Annie McNamara as Alana to show off the kind of high-level clowning normally reserved for men. She agilely combines Valley Girl, Scarlett O’Hara, and maybe a touch of cynical cougar, vocally moving between affected femininity, vapid boredom, and gruff aggression. Physically she doesn’t hold back either, highlighting the absurdity of sexual posturing. Parris, who carries a lot of the dramatic weight of the play, shows a different, but equally admirable, flexibility and range—her comedic instincts keep pace with the absurdity of the first act without seeming out of joint with her sensitive plumbing of Kaneisha’s emotional depths in the second and third acts. But all the actors are superb and perfectly cast.
Characteristically, the humor at times seems almost to dare the audience to howl with laughter; it is, in some ways, an affirmation of artistic identity that can divide the audience into those who reserve their laughter and those who respond at the kind of high-pitch set by the author and actors alike—just go with it and several moments are screamingly funny.
[Editor note: Spoilers below]
Act 1. “Work” is a surreal and feverish farce. Three sets of couples—each made up of a Black and a white partner—act out racialized sexual fantasies in the world of an old Southern Plantation, a theatrical illusion into which deliberately jarring false or contemporary notes intrude. Act 2. “Process” breaks into the illusion as (spoiler alert) it is revealed to be Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy: “A RADICAL therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” Act. 3. “Exorcise” returns to Kaneisha and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), the couple with which the play opened, at home in the aftermath of the emotionally eviscerating therapy experience.
The third act nearly saves Slave Play from an overused and rather deadly dramaturgical structure, which sees the characters play out all the instigating drama in a first half, and then talk about it in an inevitably static second half. I was half disappointed when the therapists broke into the bizarro world of “Work” (it’s a little too in the vein of, “she woke up, and it was all a dream…”). The problem is partly a question of balance; talking heads end up dominating the play, undoing some of the physical comedy and vibrant visuals of Act. 1.
Not that “Process” is without some genuine payoffs. With the therapists, Teá and Patricia (also a biracial couple, played pitch-perfectly by Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio), Harris manages to skewer pretentious academic psychobabble, while also offering up theories and comments that seem very close to touching on real insights. The participants too, now restored to their “real identities,” adroitly satirize recognizable types, yet are given moments of genuine character revelation. Costume designer, Dede Ayite, demonstrates her skill in subtly interpreting stereotype into realistic clothes that also identify the couples as such (eg. the matching athleisure wear of Alana and Phillip).
“Exorcise” is an incomplete exorcism; the demon hangs around. Slave Play is provocative in every sense of the word. Its explicit sexuality is necessarily confronting. The final third lets most of the comedy drop away to expose the raw darkness at its source and there are moments in this last scene that push into a grey area in the portrayal of sexual violence where any theatrical, political, or psychological productivity becomes questionable. Generally, however, the ambiguities of Slave Play are rich with intent. The play’s refusal to settle on some pretense as a moral answer, outright condemnation/forgiveness, or cathartic resolution is half the point. A comfortable conclusion (be it tragic or redemptive) would deny the truth of the snarled tangle of racial fear and desire that the rest of the play has exposed as our troubled colonial/psychological inheritance. It’s a knot that, for now, we can only begin to pick at.