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In Slave Play, audience and actors alike spar over who has the whip

The antebellum South gets drawn painfully into the present in this daring and ferocious look at how racism warps intimacy.

A black woman in 19th-century clothes leans against a mirrored wall while a white man grasps her dress.
Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in Slave Play at New York Theatre Workshop.
Joan Marcus

Early on in the ferocious new play Slave Play, a slave woman named Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) asks her overseer if he is going beat her. The overseer, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), asks her why she would ever think a thing like that.

“Well,” says Kaneisha, her voice dripping with mingled lust and fear, “you got that whip, aintcha?”

Jim is shocked by the reminder. He doesn’t like to recognize that he is carrying a whip. He doesn’t even really know how to use it, he protests: When he tries to crack it menacingly, it hits him in the face.

Jim also doesn’t like it when Kaneisha calls him “master,” because, he says, he’s not like one of those “Big House Folk.” He’s not her owner, he reminds her; he’s just an overseer. They’re more or less on the same ground, he assures Kaneisha. “Only difference is, I, you know? I’s sorta your manager.”

But Jim is carrying the whip nonetheless, and Kaneisha isn’t. And over the course of Slave Play’s two-hour run, as Jim and Kaneisha’s sadomasochistic sexual relationship unfolds, and as the rug is pulled out from under the audience again and again, it is never quite possible to forget that Jim is the one with the whip.

And by extension, so are the white people in the audience.

The joyously daring Slave Play comes from the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, a rising young star who’s still finishing up his term at the Yale School of Drama. “Everyone who’s watching Slave Play is fully a part of a system that is consuming and profiting off of black bodies and black identity,” Harris told the New York Times earlier this year. “The play does not allow you to escape that fact” — especially not under Robert O’Hara’s pointed direction in the current production at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Jim and Kaneisha perform one of three mixed-race pas de deux that we see during the first of Slave Play’s three acts. There’s also Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones): She’s a white plantation mistress; he’s a biracial house slave; she yearns to penetrate him. And there’s Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood). Dustin’s a white indentured laborer; Gary’s the black slave who oversees his work; Dustin licks Gary’s boots until he comes.

The three couples intertwine in a series of violent intimacies, with the white partners lingering over apparently anachronistic artifacts of black culture (Jim leers at Kaneisha as she twerks to Rihanna; Alana orders Phillip to play R. Kelly for her on the violin), and the black partners alternately thrilled and repelled.

“I can touch wherever I please, with whatever I please,” says white Dustin.

“And I can say whatever I want! However I want!” says black Gary.

“Guess those be the powers our races have bestowed on us,” Dustin replies.

At a certain point, it all starts to feel like what an academic would call an erotics of power, a twisty, kinky investigation of how race and desire intertwine in the deepest and darkest parts of our minds. Because after all, everything is about sex, except for sex, which is about power.

And then act one ends, the sex stops, and things get really wild.

If you plan on seeing Slave Play, I’d stop reading here. Just know that what happens next is so ballsy and surprising and fun that you’ll want to sit up and cheer for it, except that it’s also incredibly uncomfortable, so you can’t. Don’t seek out spoilers beforehand; just go and let the show wash over you.

If you’ve already seen Slave Play, or you’re not going to see it and you just want to know what happens, let’s keep going.

As Jim and Kaneisha’s coupling nears its climax, she begins to beg Jim to call her a “nasty negress,” to threaten to whip her. And Jim, appalled, produces a British accent out of nowhere and says, meekly, “Starbucks?”

That’s when it becomes clear that we aren’t actually in the antebellum south. We’re in 2018, the three couples we’ve been watching are in couples therapy, and Starbucks is their safe word.

Specifically, they’re in Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, a “RADICAL therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure,” explain Teá and Patricia, the chipper therapists who form the play’s fourth partnership. And slowly, the double meaning in Slave Play’s title emerges.

“So, like, are you saying that my — um — The reason I can’t get it up. The reason I don’t come is because of — just like, ‘racism?’” asks Phillip, doing air quotes.

Philip is skeptical because he sees himself as unraced — “Just a hot guy who’s not exactly black or white” — and much of what ensues is in the spirit of proving that such an identity is impossible to hold in America. The work of Slave Play is to return race to conversations from which it has been excised, while the characters object constantly.

Alana repeats, “It wasn’t racial!” like a mantra. Dustin defensively insists that he is not white, while Gary can’t see him as anything else. Jim keeps saying that Kaneisha is his queen, and that he can’t understand why she is bringing race into their relationship. For the white characters, race is something to be denied and ignored; for the black characters, race is a historical trauma that is profoundly embedded in their psyches.

The uniformly strong cast is astonishingly vulnerable as their characters break each other down, slipping in and out of fantasies and brutally intimate arguments. “You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all,” Harris’s script instructs, and the cast obeys his directions to the letter.

So does Clint Ramos’s unforgiving set design. A mirror looms at the back of the stage, and in Jiyoun Chang’s murky lighting, the audience is always partially visible, so we can always see our own avid faces eating up the spectacle in front of us. Periodically the house lights flicker fully on, leaving the audience as exposed as the characters onstage.

This is a demanding play, and one of the things that it demands is the audience’s discomfort. But that discomfort is productive — and in the end, it brings its own satisfactions. It creates a space in which the messiness and rawness of race and power and fantasy and trauma can unspool into a chaotic churn of impressions.

Slave Play posits that we live in a world in which white people are always carrying the whip. Then it jerks the whip out of their hands and wields it over them instead.

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