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Slave Play - Elizabeth Ahlfors

Slave Play

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan in Slave Play.  Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Slave Play

Golden Theatre
252 - West 45th Street. NYC
Previews: Sept.10, 2019. Opening: Oct. 6, 2019. Closing: Jan. 20, 2020
Time: Two hours, 10 min. No intermission.
Playwright: Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by: Robert O Hara

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

After a provocative off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop, Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play has moved to Broadway's Golden Theatre, offering its satirical stab at race relations, no holds barred.  A masterpiece?  That might be an overstatement, but its sharp punch to the gut and its incisiveness cannot be denied, nor can the haunting empathy hovering through it. 

With Clint Ramos’ mirrored backdrop, the audience sees its own reflection as it follows three mixed race couples deliver their outrageous tales of romance and racism on an antebellum Virginia plantation, often with amusing interceptions. 

Not surprisingly, love is not the force driving the graphic sex in these three scenes.  It is all about power.  The first couple opens as one slave, Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris), is scrubbing the floor as a rhythmic tune (Rihanna’s “Work”) sparks her inner engine and gets her up dancing.  When Jim, the plantation overseer, played by Paul Alexander Nolan, enters and sees her twisting and pounding away, he is turned on.  Being the “Massa” and all, he demands Kaneisha share her pleasure with him in various kinky ways, like ordering her to eat a smashed cantaloupe off the floor.  

Couple Number Two, involves the plantation mistress of a certain age, played by Annie McNamara, who has been feeling the heat emanating from her hunky if staid house slave, Philip (Sullivan Jones).  With sex toys and erotic poses, she demands her own lascivious way with him while her husband is out. “I want to be inside you!” wielding and aiming a dildo.  

A third couple portrays  a white indentured servant played by James Cusatto-Moyer, who is hauling bales of hay.  He is overseen by  Gary, a black man who was appointed his boss. Gary is played by Ato Blankson-Wood who cruelly browbeats the white worker, a reflection of how he once treated.  Like the other two boorish scenes, this ends with powerful graphic sex play, ending with the shout of a familiar word. 

Without an intermission, the two-hour play, is directed slickly by Robert O’Hara  and segues into a contemporary group therapy for the three couples, “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.”  Here the dramaturgy often stutters and stalls.  Two professional 30-something women, obviously working on a research project, lead the session with their muddled self-absorption and platitudes.  Overwritten and under-edited, it leads to the conclusion that our society is still suffering from the effects of slavery causing crippling complications in black/white sexual relationships.  

The acting overall is excellent.  Teyonah Parris brings a natural essence to her scenes, first as the oppressed house slave and later, a woman acknowledging her angry self-fulfillment.  Also outstanding is Sullivan Jones as Philip, persuasive as the dignified house slave denigrated by the mistress who later shows his mix of vulnerability and inner strength.  Nolan and Blankson-Wood also deserve praise for  finely tuned portrayals.

Dede Ayite designed an odd mix of costumes with patent leather boots and Calvin Klein briefs, hardly antebellum designs. The lighting, designed by Jiyoun Chang’s flashes, adding theatrical apprehension and confusion.   The backdrop of mirrors with its reflection of the audience and later of the characters offers an interesting aspect itself.

Jeremy O’Harris’ fantasy of Slave Play explores white opinions about the black experience and his satirical treatment of weighty topics like slavery and bigotry is it moves from comical critique to tragic self-hatred. I look forward to following the future works of this promising young talent.

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