Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Thoughts on Slave Play

In my zealousness to keep an eye on my gender parity in theater-viewing, there are a few plays by men (sorry) that fell by the wayside last year.  One of them was Jeremy O Harris' Slave Play.  Even though I didn't really plan to see it, I also didn't read all that much about it, preferring to hear about it from trusted friends if and when we needed to discuss it for work purposes.  Before the holidays, though, a handsome friend invited me to be his guest at last Saturday's performance at New York Theatre Workshop and I happily joined him.  So I went in rather blindly, with a few vague thoughts about what I was going to see.  After I saw the play, I went online to look at the reviews and promptly fell down a rabbit hole of commentary.  Oh my.  And so, for many many reasons, I feel as if I can't, and shouldn't, use the word 'review' to talk about Slave Play.  I'll just offer some thoughts, scattered though they may be; spoilers will most likely follow...

Actually, if you're planning on seeing the play (and I think you should), I'd stop reading now.  I had no idea where Slave Play would lead me and that's part of its appeal.  Even my vague thoughts didn't really prepare me for how it would unfold and I'd recommend that method for you, too.

OK, we're back.  I found Slave Play to be monstrously smart, fabulously acted, stunningly designed and completely provocative.  I laughed and I was also stunned.  I'm not sure that I found it to be completely successful, though, as a piece of theater.  At least successful for me.  It was clever, topical, fascinating, and intellectually engaging most of the time (I do think the play is a little long at an intermission-less two hours), but I couldn't latch onto any emotional connection.  This may be the playwright's intent, I don't know.  This may just be me.  But I wanted to feel more than I did - not that the characters' situations weren't set up to be emotionally moving, I think they were, but somehow my brain and my emotions were not completely connected.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
We first see scenes apparently set in the south during the Civil War, with an African-American character and a white character in different power and sexual dynamics - there's an overseer and a young female slave, the plantation's mistress and her mulatto servant, and a white indentured servant monitored by an African-American land manager.  The dialogue is fresh and interesting, with some very clever juxtapositions to modern-day behavior, which kept my brain wondering what was going on.  All three couples engage in some serious and adult sexual behavior, until one gentleman starts to yell the word "Starbucks! Starbucks!"  Suddenly, two contemporary women come from the back of the house, onto the stage, to stop what's going on.  To say I was taken aback is an understatement.

What we discover is the opening scenes were actually 'fantasy role-playing' in a study being conducted as (what the play calls) antebellum sexual performance therapy, intending to help these interracial couples get through the problem of the African-American partner's inability to achieve sexual pleasure.  Consider my mind blown.  I had no idea that's where we were headed.  What follows is then a group therapy session, led by another interracial couple, who are heading a sociological study about sexual dynamics.  The opening of the therapy session scene is very funny, with lots of scientific buzzwords like 'unpacking' and 'processing' and 'I hear you and...' that cause the audience to laugh at the satirical way these modern intellectuals are depicted, but some of the characters onstage release more frustration than they did during the previous sex scenes.

When we meet the characters as contemporary couples, we soon see that the power structure and the sexual hierarchies are still unbalanced, but not in the way we might imagine.  I did enjoy how the play always kept me on my toes and I couldn't guess where it might be going.  I probably should've seen the last scene coming, but I didn't, which I always appreciate.  But, again, though I can intellectually see how I should've been moved by the last scene, I was more taken aback than moved, and that is an issue for me.  And, again, I don't know if that was the playwright's intent or just my reaction.  Maybe I have failed the playwright, I just don't know.

I thought the set was brilliant, with the upstage wall being completely covered in mirrors, so there was nowhere for anyone to hide, including the audience.  We were unwilling participants, being called to consider our own reactions and ideas throughout.  I definitely enjoyed the provocative quality of the set.  All of the performers were brilliant, in my opinion, brave and willing to seriously dive right off the deep end.  They went to some dark and scary places, I'm thinking.  And I appreciated the boldness of the storytelling and I certainly have never seen THIS story before.  So even though I didn't find Slave Play completely successful as a play, I do think it's worth seeing for the ideas it's putting out there.  I definitely think this is a young playwright to keep an eye on.

When looking at reviews and think pieces afterwards, though, I started to feel bad about saying anything at all.  As a straight, white, cis woman, should I even talk about this play?  There's really no way I can ever really comprehend the magnitude of what's being explored or even satirized.  There's also a faction of people who feel this play shouldn't be produced at all, since it presents slaves and sex in a not-always-negative way (the fact that the characters aren't really slaves doesn't figure into the equation).  That goes a bit too far, I'm thinking.  I'm never for censorship - if you think a play is offensive, don't go and tell everyone you know not to go.  But I do feel uneasy now, either recommending or not recommending people see the play.  That's probably silly, but in these fractious times when I want so badly to be an ally, I certainly don't want to say or do the wrong thing.  I guess we'll just have to see what happens...     

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