‘Slave Play’ writer Jeremy O. Harris has arrived. Broadway may never be the same
Jeremy O. Harris was running late. Not late like a playwright who graduated only a few months ago from the Yale School of Drama but late like Rihanna, for whom, when she attended a performance of his “Slave Play,” the show that has been shaking up Broadway this fall, he made sure the curtain was held until the singer he calls a “patron saint” descended into her seat at the Golden Theatre.
Rihanna’s song “Work” figures prominently in the production, but that didn’t get her a pass from sticklers of theater etiquette. Media reports tattled that she and Harris texted each other during the show. All the tut-tutting over tardiness and cellphone use sparked a social media town hall, led by Harris, on the need for the American theater to become a more welcoming, inclusive and accommodating space, if it’s serious about attracting new audiences.
Harris doesn’t play by the rules. He never has and, now that he’s basking in the limelight for nuking away theatrical cobwebs, he’s not likely to start. He wants to make theater for both the cognoscenti and the reality TV crowd. A driving imperative is to create space at the cultural center for black artists and audiences. To that end, he designated a Broadway preview of “Slave Play” as a #Blackout performance, attended almost exclusively by black artists, journalists, students, theater makers and activists.
An intellectual with a Kardashian‘s gift for self-marketing, Harris speaks in a patois that blends multicultural theory with F-bombs. One minute he’s holding forth on the intersectional feminism of Saidiya Hartman, the next he’s analyzing the semiotics of the outfit he wore to the Met Gala. A peek at photos from his Out magazine cover story comes accompanied with a black-studies-meets-queer-studies level of discourse. He’s an egghead but of the Fabergé variety.
Lately, he’s been practicing the art of writing thank-you notes. Vogue magazine’s Anna Wintour, who invited him to her house for a dinner party that included Phoebe Waller-Bridge, playwright Matthew Lopez and Sienna Miller, was an early recipient. And he recently dashed off one to Seth Meyers, whom he persuaded when appearing on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” to spring for premium tickets to “Slave Play” for people who might not otherwise have been able to see the show.
On Twitter, Harris is a joker, an indefatigable self-promoter and an arch polemicist. On Instagram, he takes a more curatorial approach to his brand. A black queer 30-year-old playwright who models on the side, he mixes theater and fashion, highbrow hurrahs and pop cultural mania, personal confession and contentious op-ed. Christopher Shinn, a playwright whom Harris considers a mentor, has said of Harris’ social media presence, “Jeremy wants to have conversations in public that I’ve only had in private.”
His large-than-life virtual presence is matched in person by his 6-foot-5 frame and runway style. When he finally burst into the Soho restaurant 45 minutes late, he was a flurry of friendly apology. Sweeping off his coat to reveal a Gucci sweater emblazoned with the words “If They Did But Know,” his long braids swaying insouciantly, he ordered a dirty martini and when it arrived promptly sent it back for not being dirty enough.
When I reminded him that he did the same thing when we first met in L.A. at the Chateau Marmont for an introductory drink, he squealed with delight, called himself a “little dauphin” and proceeded to order a dozen oysters.
The plan was for us to meet after his show. I assumed this meant “Slave Play,” which I arranged to see that evening, having first caught the play at New York Theatre Workshop last year. But Harris was actually in Brooklyn at the Bushwick Starr starring in “Black Exhibition,” a work he wrote under the pseudonym @GaryXXXFisher — perhaps the least-secret pseudonym in theater history.
He has referred to “Slave Play” as his LP and “Black Exhibition” as his EP — the latter being an outlet for him not only to artistically unbend but to strut around the stage in a jockstrap. Harris approaches his career as a continual act of performance art. The outrageous example of Tennessee Williams serves as inspiration rather than as a cautionary tale. He doesn’t believe playwrights should mask their craziness.
As soon as Harris had taken a few sips of his extra dirty martini, he proposed that we go outside into the chill November night for a cigarette. Not a smoker, I nonetheless joined him, leaving my wine behind but snatching my digital recorder, which captured his exchange with a smooth-talking mendicant (“I never carry cash on me,” Harris sweetly explained, as I fished out a buck from my pocket) and his even longer back-and-forth with a woman who had heard him say “some very ethereal things” about “Slave Play” on the podcast “Keep It.” Overwhelmed to meet him in person, she asked for a selfie.
Harris didn’t just oblige but stage-managed an entire photo shoot in which he breathed out smoke in the dramatic fashion of a French New Wave rebel. These interruptions didn’t diminish the intensity of our conversation. We had been discussing the charged reaction to “Slave Play,” a daring work about interracial couples (straight and gay) seeking to heal their bedroom problems through something called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, a fabricated psychological treatment combining master-slave role-playing with agonizing (and satirically amusing) group therapy.
Broadway critics were largely enthusiastic, but one review that Harris found particularly vexing was written by the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, who began with the following observation: “When a new play by an unknown playwright is universally described as ‘controversial’ yet meets with near-universal critical acclaim … well, it’s not controversial.” Just recalling the line caused Harris to quake.
“First of all, I never said the play was controversial or provocative,” he said. “But to say that everyone said this play is an amazing thing is to snark at the black people who found the play offensive or difficult to stomach, and the blitheness about that, the ignorance about that, actually tells me more about what he thinks matters in criticism than what the play is doing or how it functions.”
Playwrights are usually more circumspect about criticizing critics by name, but Harris made clear he wanted this on the record. The unbearable whiteness of reviewing is a problem he refuses to take sitting down. He’s determined to use his platform to agitate for change. If not everyone finds his manner agreeable, he knows that being young, gifted, opinionated and black is in itself disruptive to the white mainstream.
“A lot of people really want to believe that I wrote this play just thinking about all the white people who were going to line up and give me money for telling them that they were bad white people,” he said. “But actually I wrote a play about black people self-actualizing inside of a history that makes it very difficult to self-actualize outside of the rules and socialization that come with being a black body who has inherited the trauma of chattel slavery.”
When talking one-on-one, Harris is tender and confiding. His reputation for being tempestuous isn’t unfounded, but it’s misleading. I worried that he might be combative, but he was warm, funny, sensitive and acutely self-observing in person. Before he graduated from Yale, there were alarmed reports coming out of New Haven about his thesis play, “Yell: a ‘documentary’ of my time here.” Anger, he freely admitted, fueled this cri de coeur about his Ivy League alienation. But underlying the rage is an anguish that he has been courageously transmuting into art.
“History is written on our skins the moment we are born.” This remark, spoken by Harris during a long meal that included multiple courses culminating in a banana split, could serve as an epigraph for his young body of work.
“Slave Play” and “Daddy” (both produced off-Broadway while he was still in school), along with “Black Exhibition,” represent Harris’ attempt at understanding the myriad ways this history has etched itself into his being, colonized his desires and warped his thinking. The theater is where he, a gay black man carrying the scalpel of an elite education, performs surgery on his psyche.
“The way I was socialized left me wanting to leave all the hard parts of my life,” he said. “I was socialized to be attracted away from myself, away from my race and class. When I was a boy, I remember walking down the underwear aisle and feeling this perspiration on my skin because my gut had fallen into my groin at the sight of these white male bodies. Leonardo DiCaprio was the image of male beauty in the cultural zeitgeist at the time. What other images did I have? To figure out how to love myself, I had to start writing myself into my plays, putting bodies like mine in the center of the narrative.”
The deconstruction he’s been conducting on himself and his society isn’t tidy. He knows there will be theatergoers, black and white, who will take issue with what he has exposed. Black work, he said, is often burdened with the expectation of providing answers to questions that don’t have any. “Slave Play” rejects the need to teach something.
The example of Adrienne Kennedy, a playwright he considers a seminal influence along with Tony Kushner, Edward Albee and Suzan-Lori Parks, assures him he’s on the right track. “When you read ‘Funnyhouse of a Negro,’ you see someone actively processing in front of you,” he said. “There is no resolution. But there’s the most stunning articulation through process and presence.”
Harris, who grew up in Virginia, lived in L.A. after he left DePaul University in Chicago but before he went to graduate school. He has strong feelings about the city. Not all of them printable.
“L.A. was a really weird wild ride for me,” he said. “It’s the most segregated city I’ve ever lived in, but it’s also one of the only places a person can reinvent a life for themselves. It’s truly the new frontier, always has been. L.A. allowed me to wear a mask publicly and have no one ask anything because everyone is in a mask. I literally performed being a playwright until I became one. L.A. is the best place to fake something until you make something of yourself.”
Regularly back for movie meetings, he didn’t want to speculate about which theaters in L.A. might be brave enough to produce “Slave Play.” But his dream is for “Daddy,” a melodrama about a young black artist who’s involved with a wealthy white older man (a role Alan Cumming played off-Broadway), to be done here. “It’s an L.A. play. I’d like to do it in a site-specific way — at Roland Emmerich’s house! That for me is the goal!”
It’s the most segregated city I’ve ever lived, but it’s also one of the only places a person can reinvent a life for themselves.
— Playwright Jeremy O. Harris
When we first talked at the Chateau Marmont, Harris confessed that he wouldn’t mind taking over Center Theatre Group one day. In Soho, I asked him to elaborate on his vision.
“L.A. is fertile ground for new work because no one from New York is watching,” he said. “You can do anything. The vastness of the space translates into an imaginative vastness. All anyone needs is an accessible location for work that can be an event, the way Reza Abdoh did in the ’90s. When I saw Taylor Mac at the Ace Hotel, I thought this is the first L.A. theatrical event I’ve experienced that really transcended. People were thrilled by it because there’s nothing like it. There needs to be more of that energy.”
So what would he do if he were king of CTG? He said he’d treat the theaters more like REDCAT but with a budget to support the ambition.
“One of the problems with theater today is the rigidity around programming, which makes it impossible for someone to do a show, say, only twice in a week. But what if that production was in rep with another show and there was a dialogue of ideas between them? What if the set was the same but explored differently? So many artists are hungry for this freedom, and when I talk about L.A. I talk about it as a space of potential.”
Harris is just getting started. Bold and brash, he was both proud and humbled to tell me that he’s the youngest black male playwright to be produced on Broadway. Where he’ll go from here, no one can predict, because his path doesn’t yet exist. He’s carving it himself, with blood, tears and undimmed fabulousness.
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