Jeremy O. Harris is used to people leaving showings of “Slave Play” upset. The concept — three interracial couples who turn to antebellum-era master-slave role-playing as a form of sexual therapy — has sown considerable offense, despite many critical raves about an edgy exploration of racism.
Harris, who’s found acclaim just out of graduate school — “the queer black savior the theater world needs,” one article declared — was onstage answering questions post-show with an actress, just about to wrap up for the night. Then, attendees say, a woman who appears to be Caucasian stood up from her seat to interrupt loudly: How was the performance she’d just watched not “racist against white people?”
“The plays shows the unconscious ways that white people take up space, that they don’t leave open for black people,” Harris told The Washington Post on Saturday. “This play doesn’t necessarily have to be about her … but she did just create her own character.”
Clips that exploded online with retweets and comments show the woman shouting her displeasure at “a whole bunch of stuff about how white people don’t get how racist they are.” She says she has undergone hardships ranging from rape to false arrest to single motherhood. How, she yells, is she not marginalized?
“I never once said that you as a white woman were not a marginalized person,” Harris responds. “But if you heard that in my play, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Perhaps read it or see it again,” he says.
Imma tell my kids this was The Blind Side pic.twitter.com/lAbc9D8KuP— Jeremy O. Harris (@jeremyoharris) November 30, 2019
The exchange stretched several minutes as he met the woman’s anger with attempts at explanation: His show was a portrayal of eight specific people, he said, not meant to reflect everyone who watched. Finally, as she persisted, Harris took a moment to recognize a strange extension of the work he calls a “metaphor for America.”
“I think you’ve given us another really amazing play,” he told her.
The audience was still cheering as the woman turned around and walked out of the theater.
Hours later, on Twitter, they were hashing over a moment gone viral. One person called the interruption an “aggressive attempt at oppression Olympics.” Another saw “white fragility.” A third summed up the interlude with, “Even Slave Play had to sit through thanksgiving dinner.”
Harris said he didn’t want to shut the irate patron down, as some outraged on his behalf later suggested he could have. “Rage,” he says, “is a necessary lubricant to discourse,” and he wrote his play filled with his own anger — about a history of racism that he says we cannot escape. So he treated Friday’s outburst as a chance to listen, he said, rather than dismiss after the first shouted sentences.
“It would have been hypocritical of me as someone who said from the beginning, I wanted this to be a play that sparked conversations,” he told The Washington Post.
“Slave Play” has certainly gotten people talking — long before its Broadway debut last month. Criticism of the work ranges widely: Some say the story unfairly bashes white people, while others take issue with the show’s satirical approach to slavery. Thousands have signed a petition to shut down the production, calling it “anti-Black sentiment disguised as art,” and some are queasy about its violence as it delves into a fictional therapeutic technique billed as improving couples’ sexual chemistry.
The complaints aired Friday have emerged in audience discussions before, he said: At a talk last year, two white women expressed similar dismay at their demographic’s portrayal.
Harris said he “shudders” at being labeled a “provocateur.” But he also wrote his play knowing it would make many people uncomfortable.
“The response has been hyper-discordant at Yale,” he told The Post’s Peter Marks earlier this year, referencing the alma mater where the script was born. “Students loved it and a good three-quarters of my teachers were turned off, confused by it or indifferent.”
Harris says his only regret from Friday is that — in all the commotion — he never got to announce the occasion for Friday’s special in-theater discussion. “Slave Play” had just launched a program encouraging its attendees to buy an extra ticket for someone who couldn’t normally afford a pricey seat on Broadway.
The playwright could have interjected in the moments after the audience member stalked off, before everyone else left, he said. But with her march up the aisle and out the door, he figured the angry viewer gave a fitting finish.
“She put her own period and exclamation point on the day,” he said.
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