My history is the only perspective I can rely on to evaluate such an exercise. Still, “Slave Play” feels like a challenging evening for audiences of every background. It’s also a highly entertaining one — the kind of communal experience that permits you to laugh, even as it helps you out of your own myopic corner. It lets you consider lowering your defenses, so that you can really listen.
Rarely does Broadway allow for the tenderest nerves in American identity politics to be rubbed so rawly. Harris is a playwright of excess: If there is a choice between more words, or fewer, he dependably goes for more. (The show runs a little over two hours without an intermission.) Yet what he builds here under Robert O’Hara’s excellent direction, in three distinct and surprising sections, is a triptych of the quintessential American problem — one to which you could easily devote twice as many words.
“Okay, partners,” says one of the comically earnest therapists in the evening’s lengthy second part. “So let’s process.”
Let’s process, indeed. “Slave Play” derives its provocative title from its shocking initial chapter. Three scenes — often carnally explicit — unfold, each around an interracial couple. The linkage is they’re all set in the pre-Civil War South, and involve a psychosexual power game between an enslaved black person and a white Southerner. (Whips sometimes come out, and so do demonstrations of domination and submission.)
What is an audience to make of these discomfiting encounters? Since the play’s debut late last year at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, Harris, O’Hara and their exemplary cast have made the underpinnings of these vignettes a bit less enigmatic — we are allowed now to intuit that they may not be exactly what they seem. And of course, they aren’t. Clint Ramos’s gleaming set design reinforces the notion of being asked to look with crystal clarity at one’s sense of self: It’s a wall of mirrors.
In part two, the self-reflection is both elucidated and parodied: We’re at the midpoint of a week-long self-actualization retreat, where the three couples are submitting to a regimen risibly titled “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” The black partners in each couple, it seems, are seeking help because they no longer achieve meaningful intimacy with their white partner. The therapists (portrayed by Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) egg on escalating confrontations between Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer); Phillip (Sullivan Jones) and Alana (Annie McNamara); and Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan).
One of the acutely observed currents of “Slave Play” is that though the therapy is supposed to focus on the African American characters, the white characters won’t shut up. It’s a demonstration of the failure to receive information, and maybe why the sex doesn’t work. The Caucasians continually resist being characterized by their black lovers. Cusati-Moyer’s terrific Dustin, for instance, hilariously objects when a rather obvious racial label is applied to him. “I am not white!” he protests. “It’s erasure!” Dustin doesn’t realize how absurd his declaration sounds to Gary, in Blankson-Wood’s perfectly pitched portrait of anguished exhaustion. Making allowances for the self-delusions of the righteously “good” white people seems finally to have defeated him.
The actors all navigate with elán the tricky border of psychological realism and satire. Even Jones’s strong-but-silent Phillip creates a vivid comic character; McNamara’s Alana, meantime, is a superb manifestation of neurotic solipsism. During the play’s final section, we’ll discover, thrillingly, that the seeming ridiculousness of antebellum sex therapy is not by any stretch meaningless (though La Tour and Lucio skillfully and somewhat cartoonishly send up the data-dependent appetites of ambitious academics).
It’s in that persuasive finale, devoted to the tormented exasperation of Kalukango’s sublimely rendered Kaneisha, that we get the stunning truth of what her character is after — and that only Nolan’s expertly, intuitively constructed Jim can help her through. It is, in a cosmic sense, what “Slave Play” is after, too. I cannot reveal to you what that catharsis is. I can just tell you that “Slave Play” delivered one to me — and in the process opened my eyes and ears more fully, and gratefully.
Slave Play, by Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Robert O’Hara. Set, Clint Ramos; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; sound and music, Lindsay Jones. About 2 hours 10 minutes. $39-$227. At Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York. 212-947-8844. telecharge.com.