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Why Is Everyone Talking About ‘Slave Play’?

November 4, 2019 by Suzy Evans
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When Rihanna comes to see your show, people inevitably start talking, but “Slave Play” has been sparking conversation among audiences since it premiered at New York Theatre Workshop last year.

The play started performances on Broadway in October, and it has kept the discussion going. We sat down with playwright Jeremy O. Harris and actor Ato Blankson-Wood about how the play is reshaping Broadway and bringing in new audiences.

Watch the video and read the full conversation below!

How is “Slave Play” personal to you?

Ato: “Slave Play” is personal to me because I am a black person walking through this world. And it’s about being a black person and engaging with white folks or being in white spaces. And I think that’s what a lot of my life has been, being one of the only black people in a lot of white spaces.

Jeremy: The reason I wrote it was because I had the thinking about what my body meant in a historical landscape — in landscapes that I was told were meant for me, but where very few people look like me. And I think that for a long time I have admired artists that have been able to articulate at the front lines of their oppression to their oppressors, the ways in which they feel oppressed. And I feel as though this was the start of that. I got to write this play at Yale School Of Drama, and got to articulate deeply held feelings I had about my body.

It’s a play where people who have never heard the things that are in the back of Black minds as they navigate these spaces, get to wrestle with hearing that for the first time. And people who have felt that and felt like they might be the only one who’s ever articulated that in the back of their mind, get to hear someone else mirror them. It becomes this amazing exchange in a really alive space that allows an audience to leave and talk. Because I think that one of the things that’s always made me feel alone in the theater is so many plays that people said they’re talking about, I would watch them and they weren’t having any conversation that resonated with me. And when people leaving the play that I’ve written, I’ve heard from other people, from Twitter, from Instagram, from IRL conversation on the train, that they’ve wrestled and talked about the ideas inside of this play for weeks on end. And these are things that resonate with them and resonate with me, and that’s exciting.

Can you share any specific examples of conversations you’ve had, either with each other or with audience members, that have really stuck with you after the play?

Ato: A friend of mine came, and she’s a mixed race and she’s also British. This play has felt deeply, as we’ve been working on it, this feels like we’re looking at American history. And she went back to her childhood, and she was like, “I’ve had this feeling that a white man would never look at me or be attracted to me.” The fact that this play uncovered something for her, that she’s gone 30-something years through her life thinking this is something I just thought was a fact. I’d never unpacked or looked at what was underneath it. I was like, “Oh, we are doing something.”

Jeremy: My friend Bowen Yang, who is now a new cast member on “SNL” and who’s not black, he’s actually East Asian, saw the play. Up until that point, I hadn’t had a non-Black person have such an avalanche of emotions about feeling seen and feeling heard. And it’s actually a line that you say in the play that really moved him and moved a lot of his friends. It was the line, “I am the prize.” Like having a deep conversation with a friend whose like, “As a person of color in this country, I don’t feel like I’ve had enough space or time to say to the world why I’m the person that should be desired, why I’m the person that should be upheld, why I’m the person that should be taken care of in these spaces.”

I’ve always been asked to uphold, to take care of, to make space for specifically white men, more often than not. And to have that thing transcend the sort of flat reading of the place that it’s just about black and white interracial relationships, and have it become about like no, this is about the space I as a person of color get to feel I can take up in a space that tells me I can’t. That was huge.

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan in “Slave Play” on Broadway. (Photographed by Matthew Murphy.)

What have the conversations between the two of you been like about the play?

Jeremy: The thing was really crazy about going to Broadway is that it moves so quickly that we had to know the foundations of our conversations from our off-Broadway run. He inspired the character that he’s playing because of these conversations that were both about to play and not.

Ato: Just engaging with you, just in terms of your presence, has been really informative for me about like how I’m proceeding in this play. I think you’re leading by example, which is such an amazing thing. I don’t feel like there have been explicit conversations so much that there’s been a lot of contact if that makes any sense.

Jeremy: It feels really lovely to hear you say the way I move to the world because one of the things about the play that excites me every night is that every time I’m watching a play, I get to watch three black characters have moments of self-actualizing in front of the audience and articulating for the first time, who they are as individuating outside of their relationships and outside of these partnerships into standing fully in themselves.

I do wonder if that mimics my own self-actualization. I’ve always taken up space but never as much as I get to take up now. I didn’t know how much of a prize I am until I was able to say it to myself on the page and then I was able to move in a different way to the world. I wonder if Gary is now wandering the world after the play with the sort of self-actualized, sense of taking up space.

Ato: I think he’s broken by the end of the play, but at the same time I think that just creates a new space for him to actualize in that way

There has been so much talk on social media about this play. What has that experience been like for you? Did you expect it to spark so many conversations?

Jeremy: What’s funny is that I both did and didn’t. The plays literally inspired by years of reading Tumblr. For my first couple of plays, I was always like, “How can I make my friends who don’t see theater want to see theater? What are all my friends talking about on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram?”

I gave my first two plays that I ever finished writing, essentially like hashtag titles. If you look up the hashtag for slave play any other time outside of now, it’s a huge kink hashtag. I was able to take that kink hashtag and fill it with ideas and get people excited about centering a black person’s work and not dom-sex play, which was really cool. I knew that a play with this title might be able to integrate itself with the web in a different way than other plays might. But I didn’t expect the huge debate to happen online and what that would do to invite new people in and it’s exciting. I love the fact that people had found out about a play from a hashtag and they’re going to see their first play on Broadway or their first play off-Broadway because of it.

The cast of “Slave Play” on Broadway. (Photographed by Matthew Murphy.)

How do you think this play is inviting new audiences to the theater?

Ato: The play does shift in terms of who is in the audience, who’s receiving it. I will say that this is my third time on Broadway, and this is definitely the most diverse audience I have ever encountered. There’s been effort put in, and we’ve been having this conversation about, yes we’re telling different stories now, we’re telling what we’re hearing from different voices now, right. But we’ve also been having the conversation around who’s receiving those stories. And this is the first time I’ve actually seen it in action. I actually seen Jeremy and these producers making an effort to make sure this play is reaching the audience it is intended to reach.

Jeremy: Last time I went outside the theater, I was sort of trying to be incognito and have a cigarette and I saw a huge, maybe 14 Black women who are in a book club called Read Between the Wine Club. They were having a full debate outside of the theater afterwards. I came in and was like, “Hey what’s going on?” And then we had this amazingly rich conversation. None of these women looked over 30. None of these women articulated that they see a lot of plays on Broadway. But what they did say, is that they had heard about the play and they wanted to discuss it as a group of 20-something Black women. The conversation I had outside was so alive in such a different way than the conversation I’ve had with regular theatergoers about the play.

The play is about the tapestry of experiences of being an American. The play is so deeply about what we’ve all inherited to get to the place that we’re in right now. And what we’ve ignored to get here that we need everyone in the room or else it doesn’t work. Seeing the nights when the room is half young, half old, half white, half black, half brown, half any other identity, is the nights when the place is the most alive. I mean the night we did it for an all-Black audience was truly insane.

Ato: I will never forget that night for as long as I live. When you’re cutting yourself emotionally for an audience, you want to feel that they’re with you. That this is for a reason that there’s some empathy being exchanged and that particular night is going to get me through the rest of this run. Knowing that I can get up here and I can sort of just go to the places I need to go psychologically and emotionally because that this exchange happens.

The play has been described as “shocking.” What does that mean to you, and why do you think theater is able to foster these conversations?

Ato: Can I ask you a question? What do you think about that word shocking? I’m always interested when people are like, “This play is shocking.”

Jeremy: I think it’s shocking if you don’t see theater in Europe and it’s shocking if you think that theater should be more PG than like everything we watch on television. But I think part of the reason I wanted it in this space and not as a film or as a TV show is because I think that maybe the reason people think it’s more shocking is because in a theater you have to sit with it in a different way and sit next to someone else who you fully don’t know in a different way. In a theater, the light from the stage bounces off onto you and makes you more of an active participant than you become in a movie.

There’s the lights refraction is being refracted off of your face, in the face of the person next to you so maybe you feel more implicated or something. And I think that that sense of implication, that sense of you have to stay inside of this was a part of what I was going for when I wrote the play. I truly wanted to have people that I walked through these halls with recognize the fact that these halls were built by a specific set of people and those people were Black, they were enslaved, and they were unpaid

It’s basically less than a hundred years since we’ve sort of actively stopped doing that. I mean we still have inactive and passive slaveries in and around us every day that we don’t articulate either. I think that I wanted us to have to feel implicated in thinking about all the ways those things might have affected us psychologically, mentally, socially, and live with that. I think that’s why I wanted it in this medium.

What does it mean to you that “Slave Play” is on Broadway?

Ato: I have loved theater since I was a child, and if you had told my 14-year-old self that this play was going to exist on Broadway, I’d be like no way. And to know that it’s here signifies a shift to me that I did not think was possible, and I hope that moving forward that people will be a little bit more rigorous with what they go to see at the theater, what they use the theater as, like what the theater is for them. I see it as more of like a space of a conversation, as more of challenging space than it is like as an entertainment or a space to feel comfort.

Jeremy: The things that always depressed me as someone who has obsessed about the history of who’s been on Broadway is the fact that so many of the most transgressive and exciting works that got to me in Martinsville, Virginia, were works that started on Broadway. The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams was insane! To have a soldier have sex with an older woman and throw a condom off. It was like actually crazy. Then that sort of sense that theater was a space of transgression started to dissipate in like the ‘90s and like fully dissipated after 9/11 because I think that the economic collapse and all these other things, people got very nervous about how they were going to use their money.

While there were still exciting and transgressive things, it was starting to become like you only go downtown to find that kind of thing. I think what’s exciting is that this play could maybe be a reset button on histories of really exciting and transgressive theater. Hopefully, some of my peers and mentors who have done and are doing the type of work that inspired me to write this play, will be right behind me making even more scarier, more complicated, more implicating work after this play. If this plays a success, it means that a generation of people that look like me will know that they can have a place to go on a Wednesday night that isn’t the movies, that isn’t a concert, that isn’t like Netflix. They get to come here and maybe the thing that I loved as a child won’t die. That’s what’s exciting about “Slave Play” being on Broadway. Hopefully this will change the tide on who comes to the theater, why they come to the theater and what the theater gets to be for them.

Get tickets to see “Slave Play” on Broadway.