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Everyone Is Welcome. No One Is Safe: How ‘Slave Play’ Challenges Audiences

November 4, 2019 by Robert O'Hara
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The cast of “Slave Play” on Broadway. (Photographed by Matthew Murphy.)

“Slave Play” vibrates with today’s audiences on so many levels but especially along the fault lines at the intersection of Race and Sex. Just saying each of those words causes a seismic reaction to both the listener and the speaker, especially in America.

Approach any American and say to them “I’d like to have a conversation with you about Race” or “I’d like to have a conversation with you about Sex,” and you will sense immediately the vibration upon which this play operates. Through the audacity of his imagination, Jeremy has fashioned a Rubik’s Cube of a play where the racial and sexual dynamics are constantly changing and therefore the viewers comfort is constantly being challenged.

It is a play that immediately lives up to one of my mottos of: Everybody is Welcome. Nobody is Safe. Theater is one of the last places where we are allowed to speak and examine uncomfortable truths as a group. Where fiction and fact can be spliced together into a narrative and you find yourself watching yourself even if that person looks nothing like you.

“Slave Play” has in its very title the slight of hand that we as Americans have to negotiate when we pledge allegiance to a flag that is supposed to symbolize a land of the free and home of the brave or whenever we start a sentence off with “Our Founding Fathers…” “Slave Play” is both about our peculiar institution and our peculiar fascination with bondage.

Why are we as Americans so quick to try and own the dark corridors of our history by syphoning them off so that only certain people are allowed to write about them and only in certain ways and only in certain company? “Slave Play” puts America through a group therapy session of its brutal history with Race and Sex and in order to do that it must show Us to Ourselves.

My first professionally produced play, “Insurrection: Holding History,” was also written in graduate school and like “Slave Play” became a lightening rod for those who felt that I’d crossed the line, but in my case, in imagining that Homosexuality and Slavery could share the same space.

In that play I also mixed race and sex, period and contemporary, in a queer, satirical and dramatic manner. Jeremy and I are a part of a legacy of artists who’ve used humor and satire to speak truth to the brutality of what it means to embrace the totality of America. That legacy includes George C. Wolfe, Suzan-Lori Parks, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, Douglas Turner Ward, and many many others.

And that is why “Slave Play” speaks so clearly to an audience today, even if, and more importantly, when, that audience yells back its pain at seeing certain images and hearing certain words. When was the last time you went to a theater — and more specifically a Broadway theater—and you didn’t leave humming a song but instead left vibrating from what that experience has cost you?

All reactions to “Slave Play” are valid. Neither Jeremy, nor I, are attempting to make everyone happy or to simply entertain an audience. This is not one size fits all. Being Black and Queer and Artists, we understand our legacy and our responsibility to another motto of mine, to “not be limited by ANYONE’s imagination.” Because from the beginning of the history of America and indeed most of the history of the world, our very existence did not and continues to not have a place in the imagination of most narratives, especially on the American stage and especially on Broadway.

So. Welcome to “Slave Play.” We are not here to make you comfortable. We are not here to make you safe. We are here to, in the words of the author, “Work. Process. Exorcise.” 

Get tickets to see “Slave Play” on Broadway.

Robert O’Hara is the director of “Slave Play.” He is a playwright and director, whose work includes “Bootycandy,” “Barbecue,” “The Etiquette of Vigilance,” “Antebellum,” and more.