Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in NYTW’s production of ‘Slave Play.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
What happens when obstacles to emotional and physical intimacy caused by and rooted in the psycho-sexual trauma of American slavery are confronted? If playwright Jeremy O. Harris is at the helm: Slave Play, a bristling, genre-crashing new work tinged with soft porn, now receiving its world premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.
In one of a myriad of erotic exchanges set in antebellum Virginia on the imagined MacGregor Plantation, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), an interracial gay couple on the rocks, ride a roller coaster of desire, power dynamics and fetishization. Their chemistry is riveting, their action a shared choreopoem of love and pain that sucker punches you so deep in the loins you may not have any air left by the time one of the two climaxes. It will also very likely forever change the way you look at your black leather boots.
Sullivan Jones and Annie McNamara in ‘Slave Play.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
There are two other couples, and their stories are also told through soul-bumping sexual trysts that live in a mash-up world of black and white, reality and fantasy, realism and farce, negro spirituals and Rihanna. Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) and Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) open the play with a scene set in the plantation fields armed with a whip and broom, respectively, followed by Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones) who romp on, across and nearly under a four-poster bed with a dildo and a fiddle (also, respectively).
The scenes pack enough slave-era satirical shock and awe to drop your mouth agape and get your woke wheels turning, but before you can string together a clear intersectional analysis, they will stun you into submission. The work (in Part 1 aptly titled “Work”) is too visceral to intellectualize. It is also incredibly funny, so be prepared to laugh then fall back into quiet and stillness. All of this takes place before a wall of mirrors. Clint Ramos’ minimalist scenic reminds us that we are probing deeply into themes of racial objectification, fears of miscegenation, and our own sense of being seen as a collective. Slave Play’s dramaturg Amauta M. Firmino calls it the exposure of “our captive fantasies” to “illustrate the uncanny contours of colonized desire, historical trauma, and sexual entanglement.”
Only a third into this two-hour intermissionless play and I began to question what exactly was going on. The characters all seemed a little off the center of who they are meant to be. After the first 45 minutes, I wished for a break to cool off a bit and perhaps discuss some issues that would inevitably come up while watching. But no such luck. Harris is intentionally relentless.