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Reckoning with Slave Play, the most controversial show on Broadway

Slave Play is a challenging theatergoing experience, no matter your race.

Paul Alexander Nolan (Jim) and Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha) star in “Slave Play.”
Paul Alexander Nolan (Jim) and Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha) star on Broadway in Slave Play.
Matthew Murphy

Slave Play is a title meant to be taken literally. In up-and-coming playwright Jeremy O. Harris’s first major stage production, racial dynamics in the antebellum South are at the fore, as Harris interrogates them through a ... unique form of couples therapy.

(How the concept of “slave play” manifests in Slave Play could be considered a bit of a spoiler, so take this as your first and last warning.)

The “slave play” that incites the events of Harris’s thoroughly challenging drama takes the form of a psychology experiment, in which three interracial couples are tasked with role-playing white-black, master-slave relationships as a way to make sense of how their racial identities factor into their sex and personal lives. While the audience is first introduced to the characters in mid-19th century garb and with Southern accents of varying quality, contemporary details peek through to clarify that what we are watching is instead a modern-day performance of slave-master dynamics in the Civil War-era American South, conducted by a therapy group comprised of mixed-race couples, in service of two grad students’ thesis project.

And that performance shows its seams, eventually breaking the role-play wide open. We ultimately attend a session of the therapy group, with everyone now out of costume as the grad students moderate an uncomfortable talkback among the participants. That’s how we learn that the mixed-race couples are in attendance because the black partners are unable to feel sexual pleasure, and their white partners are unable to figure out why.

By contrasting the Civil War era with our “woke” times in order to help the white halves of each couple understand their black partners’ anhedonia, Slave Play forces upon both its characters and the audience a question: What does it really mean to be black in a relationship with a white partner? Does the history of slavery continue to impact sex and power between these groups, and how? Who holds whom accountable, if so?

These are heady questions, and Slave Play doesn’t provide easy answers. Instead, it asks the (largely white and affluent, in accordance with Broadway’s usual demographics) audience to consider them too — and by extension, to consider whether they themselves unwittingly take a myopic view of race. Slavery may have ended 150 years ago, but its legacy lingers in ways invisible and implicit. Slave Play wants viewers of all races to acknowledge that reality.

I (Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank) attended a recent performance of Slave Play with two of my Vox colleagues, culture reporters Constance Grady and Aja Romano. Forced to reckon with our discomfort, the three of us realized the best way to make sense of it was to have a conversation of our own. The resulting discussion — about everything from how Slave Play’s depiction of contemporary racial dynamics affected us to what one disruptive audience member says about theatergoers at large — follows.

Slave Play is uncompromising, but is it better for it?

Allegra: Y’all, I have to be upfront: I found watching Slave Play to be one of the most emotionally complicated experiences I’ve ever had. I should say up top that I am the product of an interracial couple, a half-black, half-white woman myself. The play’s discussion of the importance of racial visibility versus racial erasure in a relationship struck a chord with me.

As a black-identifying person in modern America, and one who regularly operates in non-black spaces, it can become almost status quo to vacillate between those two manners of being. If you are in the presence of white people who consider themselves virtuously “inclusive,” you are one of them, regardless of race. In other majority-white groups, you are the Black One, Speaker of the Race.

In Slave Play, the therapy session leads to the white partners having to assess which of these groups they belong to. The psychology students whose thesis project this experiment exists for ask their subjects: Do they embrace the history, meaning, and specificities of the black experience in their relationships? Or do they try their damnedest to level the playing field of privilege? And regardless of whether the answers are yes or no, there’s a bigger question at hand: Should they?

The antebellum South-inspired sexual performance therapy scenes are meant to grant context to these conversations. But my own discomfort with these scenes, with watching black people being degraded, called the n-word, and treated like sex objects, rendered me unable to really engage with Slave Play’s complex ideas in the moment — instead, I questioned whether the role-playing itself was a worthwhile way to inform the characters, and the audience, on how to fully participate in the conversations it depicts.

Did either of you find yourselves similarly uncomfortable with the actual “slave play,” or were you able to more objectively psychoanalyze it, emotions unattached?

Sullivan Jones (Phillip) and Annie McNamara (Alanna) in Slave Play.
In Slave Play, interracial couples confront the reality of what it means to be black or white in America.
Joan Marcus

Aja: Oh, this is hard. Reading about your experience of the play, Allegra, clarified something for me that I don’t think I’d realized until just now, which is that instead of the role-play informing the characters, for me, the role-plays were essentially opaque until after we’d witnessed the characters interact with each other normally.

I’ve done a whole lot of role-play in my lifetime, so I immediately assumed there was total consent from both parties, and that largely alleviated my discomfort during the role-play sessions. My greatest discomfort came during moments when the white characters seemed to get too casual about their roles. And once I, as a white viewer, had been placed in that position of feeling anxious that my white counterparts onstage weren’t going to be open enough to what was being asked to them — or, worse, that they would be way, way too open to it — I stayed in that place and it intensified throughout the following psychotherapy session.

For me, the psychotherapy session inverted the dynamics of the role-plays. In the role-plays, the black characters who’d been experiencing anhedonia had been trying to have an honest experience with their white partners who were supposed to be performing through the experience, but they failed. Then, in the psychotherapy sessions afterward, the honest experiences happened to the black characters while the white characters were the ones obsequiously performing their whiteness and their assumed roles as the good partners.

This part of the play was infuriating to watch, because I kept rooting for the white characters to be self-aware. Instead, their performances frequently pushed the whole play into the realm of satire (“I read about it in the New Yorker!”) and that was also frustrating. I couldn’t will the racial dynamics to resolve themselves in expected ways, and by the end I think I’d resigned myself to being lost with the characters, off the map surrounded by dragons.

Constance: I can’t disagree with either one of you, but for me, everything you’re describing works. The role-play sessions truly are incredibly uncomfortable to sit through, and I can certainly see how easily they could feel traumatic or triggering. And I, too, find them largely opaque until the therapy begins and everyone has a chance to, ahem, “process.”

But for me, the discomfort is effective because it forces me to surrender to the play. I wrote in my review of the off-Broadway production that Slave Play is very interested in making the audience aware that we are complicit in white supremacy, that we are metaphorically holding a whip at all times — and then in wrestling that whip away from us, putting us at its mercy. In other words, sitting down to see Slave Play is basically signing on to allow this weird show to top you.

Front-loading the role-play section, with all its attendant disturbing images of degradation (Kaneisha being forced to eat the cantaloupe off the ground is a particularly “yikes” moment), is part of that process. In theory, that’s where the play disarms us so thoroughly that we find ourselves with no choice but to go where it leads us.

And again, I can see why that disarming tactic might not work for you! It is incredibly, extremely disturbing! But it works for me. Every time, I am so taken aback by what I’m seeing, so shocked out of myself, that I have no choice but to let Slave Play take me where it wants to go.

I think part of what makes it shocking in a bearable way for me is that the show is doing so much work to make the audience’s reactions part of the spectacle of the theater. The set is built out of mirrors, and the house lights never go fully down, so as we’re watching the characters, we’re also watching our own faces and our own responses reflected back at us. Knowing that I’m supposed to be looking at my own reaction to this show is in some ways horrifying — there’s no escape, there’s no fourth wall to hide behind — but it also gives me room to create a little analytical distance for myself.

And of course, it’s a lot easier for me to create that analytical distance than it is for other members of the audience because I’m a white woman, and Teá and Patricia would want me to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege here. But I’ll also note that I don’t especially feel the play as being written or addressed to me and my whiteness. It feels like it’s addressing a black audience with a certain amount of tenderness and a desire to give that black audience a very specific kind of subjectivity — but it also understands that, Broadway being Broadway, a lot of the audience will be white. It just strongly feels that those white people should shut up and try to learn something. Which then puts me in the weird position of being a white lady who should shut up and learn, and also a professional critic who needs to talk about this play.

Aja: Just to be clear, the play did work for me! I felt I was exactly where Harris wanted me to be. Like Constance, I wound up deciding that Slave Play is not designed either to fully let me into its perspective or to fully shut me out, either — it’s just actively not about me. Slave Play’s price of admission is that I bear witness, sit with my discomfort, and acknowledge that my whiteness can’t be separated from these messy, emotional, deeply complicated truths about slavery and where it’s left us.

I don’t know if that’s a collective pact, though. The mostly white audience was so uncomfortable — I don’t think I’ve ever sat in an audience that on edge. It rejects the idea that it should be written for white people, while also fully acknowledging that it will be performed before mostly white people anyway. Which is again a commentary on the act of performing racial identity in a white-privileged society. But the majority of the audience was a crowd of white people who seemed to be taking it very personally and having a hard time with it, which is a microcosm of the way white people tend to respond when faced with any aspect of performative black culture. (Just think about how testy many white people can get over expressions of black identity in pop culture, from Colin Kaepernick to Beyoncé.) That audience reaction is both part of the performance of Slave Play and a mirror of what happens onstage. That is some juicy meta.

Constance: The place where the meta got absolutely fascinating to me was in how much of our audience seemed to want to use Slave Play as a chance for them to demonstrate that they were the kind of good white people who “Got It.” At first, they mostly made that demonstration through knowing chuckles whenever the play was really leaning on the idea that we are all complicit in white supremacy (not going to lie, I was probably doing that too without thinking about it), but about halfway through the show, a white guy toward the front of the house seemed to decide that laughter was an inappropriate response. Instead, he would demonstrate his racial virtue via slow clap.

From then on, every time this man felt that the play was making a point — which seemed to mean, for him, every time one of the actors was raising their voice emphatically, regardless of context — there would be a burst of vigorous applause from the front of the house, while the rest of the audience was frozen into silence and the cast continued talking determinedly on, over the clapping.

I don’t live inside Slow Clapper’s head or anything, so I can’t say for sure what he was thinking, but from the outside, it absolutely appeared that his major concern in experiencing Slave Play was making sure that everyone in the theater knew that he Got It. He was a good white person, he was taking his criticism as it arrived, and he was being such a good sport about it that he was clapping for it. He was centering himself and his reactions to this play about blackness and black experience, and then inserting himself into everyone else’s experience, as though he was clearly of paramount importance to the rest of the theater too.

That is such a fucking Alanna move! That’s exactly what she did when she took over both the role-play and the psychoanalysis afterward! It’s exactly what both Jim and Dustin did when they talked all over their black partners over the course of the whole play! The thing that Slow Clapper was doing was being satirized onstage right in front of him, and he was so focused on making sure that he was showcasing his virtue and his ability to Get the Point to the rest of the theater that he just … completely failed to grasp the actual point.

That’s part of why the heavy satire of the psychoanalytical section felt so earned to me. It’s absolutely possible to walk someone right up to the point and have them miss it, and we know that because we saw someone miss the point during our show, right in front of us. (This is also something that happens during Slave Play on a pretty regular basis. For instance, since late November, Harris has been tweeting out his encounters with a white woman he’s dubbed Talkback Tammy who had some criticisms of Slave Play and, when she felt Harris was unwilling to hear them, literally asked to speak to his manager.)

Aja: Exactly! This is part of why I was so uncomfortable! I just want us to not fail. Can we as white people ever once just not fail to be terrible stereotypes of ourselves? No? Sigh.

Allegra: I believe in you. And I agree with you wholeheartedly about that wildly inappropriate Slow Clapper, about the viewer of Slave Play who listens to each black character’s revelation and interprets it as a moment that merits individual recognition. As if it is so daring for black people to speak their truth in a therapy session, because they’re in attendance with white people.

In a sense, it is brave. Vulnerability of any kind requires courage. And to open up in front of your sexual or romantic partner can be a scary thing, no matter your race. But it was indeed telling that our Slow Clapper never once gave a white character similar attention. When a white character spoke of race in Slave Play — like Dustin, the white man who insists that he is not “white” because he doesn’t go to as many gentrified coffee shops as his black boyfriend Gary does — it was taken for comedy, or in less discomforting stride than when our black characters spoke up.

Perhaps that’s my read, but the white people onstage were not the ones coming to terms with how their black partners wanted to be treated or vice versa. The onus, as you both have mentioned, was on the white audience members.

Aja and Constance, you have spoken to the unease you felt as Slave Play insisted upon you the ingrained sense of white supremacy in white Americans, all. But on my side of the equation, I watched and wonder if I was complicit in something else. Do I actively insist upon people my racial identity and the inherent power dynamics that come with it, between me and a person of a different race? That is to say, how cognizant am I of the social clout afforded or not afforded to me as a woman of color in my interpersonal relationships?

Harris is challenging viewers of all races, in that respect, to take how they comport themselves into heavy consideration. I didn’t walk out of Slave Play with a satisfying answer on how I present myself to my white friends or family members or past, present, and future partners. But the end of the play suggested to me that there are no comfortable answers to questions of racial constructions.

Kaneisha, at the end of the play, finds some sexual pleasure again by having her white husband Jim force himself upon her, again in their master/slave roles. The moment is a disconcerting one, and it comes after a long discussion between the two about their relationship. Kaneisha explains to Jim that she began to lose interest in him as she became more aware of his whiteness, and what that whiteness meant for who held the power in their relationship. It was only when Jim also became aware of what his whiteness gave him in a society that privileges whiteness that Kaneisha felt attracted to him again. She felt heard, because he accepted and performed the whiteness she felt inherently belonged to him — he was no longer skirting it.

A scene like this one is why I left Slave Play so overwhelmed by the concept of what racial dynamics should look like in my life, and what part I play in them. Because I could not at all get behind the situation that gave Kaneisha pleasure — like the role-playing itself, it made me deeply uncomfortable. White men may be blessed with the most control in American society, but I live to fight against that, not make those white men aware of it, necessarily.

What did you all think of the ending? Did it throw you off, too?

Constance: Absolutely. In some ways the ending is the hardest part of the show to cope with, because the playfulness of the satire that animated the first two acts has disappeared, and now we’re just left with the violence and the trauma and the repeated plea that we listen to what Kaneisha is asking of us, regardless of how uncomfortable her requests might make us.

When I try to parse the ending, I keep coming back to an essay Jeremy O. Harris wrote for Vice in 2016 called “Decolonizing My Desire.” Harris writes about spending his adolescence and early 20s attracted exclusively to white men, and how he now sees that attraction as part and parcel of the way his mind was colonized, the way he was taught to uphold white culture as the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

Later, he learns to use fetishized black art as a lure for white hookups: Come on over to my place and let’s watch some Melvin Van Peebles. “My conquests began to feel fatalistic,” he writes; “they saw me as part of a lineage of queer black excellence that they could quantify and consume.” (We can see that idea echoed in Slave Play in the way the white partners fetishize black music, like when Alanna demands Phillip stop playing Beethoven and play R. Kelly instead.)

“Slave Play” Opening Night
Jeremy O. Harris (fourth from right) and the cast of Slave Play.
Chance Yeh/Getty Images

Harris ends up concluding that his obsession with whiteness — white culture, white bodies, white approval — meant that he was erasing himself. “I was failing to exist,” he writes. And in writing his plays, he is repairing that erasure and insisting on his own existence: “I write to will myself into existence, and reshape the world in my image — not for white people, but for myself.”

Through the lens of that essay, Kaneisha’s desire to have Jim physically act out the violence of white supremacy on her body reads like a metaphor for the way Harris thinks about his own adolescent fantasies. It’s less about how he thinks all white people should behave toward all black people, and more about how his own belief that there is violence at the root of the thing that he was taught to desire. And all that came before the end of the play, during the first two acts, was about tearing away all the veils of politeness and psychoanalysis from that fantasy and exposing what lies at its core.

Aja: I thought all of this came through really vividly in the play. To me, the ultimate act of refraction that Slave Play enacts is to serve as a microcosm of the act and effect of colonization — in its horror, perversion, the way it twists desire and irrevocably warps human relationships. And the play’s final moments make this crystalline, because in them, Kaneisha is striving to regain some agency over her own desire and her own body, but simultaneously, in order to find that, she has to frame her own body within colonial violence — she has to put herself in a place where she can be utterly degraded.

That’s a horrific place to leave us and her character. But ironically, in the BDSM community, what Kaneisha is approaching in these final moments is something really special and a bit magical. When a person who’s acting the submissive role in a domination session is able to push themselves past the limits of what they think they can take emotionally and physically, they will sometimes enter a free-floating blissful state known as “subspace” where their body responds to the intensity of what’s happening by flooding them with chemicals, and they basically leave their body and lose their ability to feel pain of any kind.

Kaneisha is clearly nowhere near subspace at the end of Slave Play — there’s nothing transcendent about this ending, nor should there be. But I think Slave Play allows Kaneisha to get a little closer to subspace, if “subspace” here can be thought of as a moment of metaphorical purging, an out-of-colonized body experience. If Slave Play uses role-play — slave play — as a deep metaphor, then, it’s helpful to know that part of the metaphor is that slave play also enables the person who’s forced to submit to achieve an ultimate break from grappling with all of this: a brief, euphoric absence from the responsibility of contending with their own pain and intense emotions, their body, and the weight of history on their body — and a respite that their dominating partner can never know.

Allegra: What an enviable experience that sounds like — the idea of a “euphoric absence” from our beings! I cannot say the same about how the slave play in Slave Play sat with me, but in both of your experiences, I find resonance with my own.

We can never know exactly how each other felt sitting there in the audience, though, no matter how much we talk about it together. Therein lies this play’s power.