If there’s anything more boring than hearing about other people’s dreams, it’s hearing about their therapy sessions.
And, to my mind, hearing about people’s sexual fantasies — admittedly not a topic that crops up in general conversation — isn’t exactly riveting either.
So it is a considerable testament to the talent of the hyper-celebrated young playwright Jeremy O. Harris that his “Slave Play,” which consists almost entirely of either comic vignettes depicting characters in sexual role play, or wrangling with each other in group therapy, is as consistently and often outrageously entertaining as it is.
Nevertheless, after a second viewing of the play, which has opened on Broadway after an Off-Broadway run last season, I still came away with the nagging sense that this daring comedy ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its pointedly provocative parts. As a sly and boisterous spoof of the sometimes absurd excesses indulged in by overzealous psychotherapists, it’s smashing fun. But as an illumination of how the legacy of slavery and racism continues to inflect and infect even the most intimate and loving relationships, it’s talky to the point of murkiness.
“Slave Play” begins with a trio of boldly explicit scenes in which interracial couples enact sexual fantasies drawing on the grimly exploitative power dynamics that marked the relationships between African-American slaves and their owners in the pre-Civil War South.
These are clearly fantasies, with giveaways aplenty: an eyeroll or two from Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) as she is made to clean the floor, and eat melon off it, by her “overseer,” Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan). (One of the funniest moments in the play arrives when they briefly erupt into an argument about that melon.)
Alana (Annie McNamara) plays the mistress of a plantation (hiding thigh-high patent leather boots under her crinolines), who asks one of her slaves, Phillip (Sullivan Jones), first to play something on the violin before she brings out her own, um, instrument, for sexual play.
The third couple is gay: Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), who reverse the historical power dynamic, with the black Gary playing the white Dustin’s overseer and taking erotic pleasure in having Dustin lick his boots.
The play then brings us into the room where all have assembled, on folding chairs, to discuss and “unpack” and “process” (a word that is roundly mocked by the skeptical British Phillip) what they have learned — or not — from engaging in this sexual play. It is day four of a session of “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” being supervised by two therapist-academics, Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), and Teá (Chalia La Tour), who appear to have their own power-dynamic issues.
“Slave Play” reaches peaks of explosively funny humor in this long scene, as the couples reveal their grievances and the roots of the conflicts that have left them all dealing with sexual dysfunction. The implicit suggestion behind this form of therapy is that the waning of attraction between the couples is somehow rooted in the historical legacy of slavery and racism, and that only by delving into the psychosexual and psychosocial issues associated with it can they exorcise the problem and heal the wounds in their relationships.
This, it seems to me, is a provocative idea, but also a somewhat questionable one. As one participant sensibly notes, a dimming of the sexual spark between partners in relationships is not a phenomenon exclusive to interracial couples. And the idea that subterranean racism, or the effects of America’s systemic racism, is endemic to all (or at least many) interracial relationships is a generalization that I would think some such couples might find eyebrow-raising.
Harris himself seems to recognize the outlandishness — and even destructiveness — of this novel form of therapy. The therapists are depicted as jargon-slinging do-gooders (“You are heard, you are affirmed and I see you,” burbles Patricia to a recalcitrant Jim), with variations on the word “anhedonia” (the inability to feel pleasure) cropping up no less than five times. And the fissures in the couples’ relationships mostly remain unhealed, if not torn further open.
For example, in a funny meltdown, Dustin throws a tantrum, insisting that he is, despite his apparent whiteness, in fact not white and wants recognition for it. He also attacks his partner for being, despite his skin color, “whiter” than he is, meaning Gary is the one who is most enamored of the perks of their East Harlem neighborhood’s gentrification.
But exactly how the characters’ racial identities have led to the collapse of their sexual rapport tends to get overwhelmed by the onslaught of psychological verbiage tossed back and forth, eventually littering the stage like a crateful of ping pong balls unleashed. (Unlike in life, onstage a little therapeutic talk goes a long way.) Teá and Patricia frequently emit numbing lectures about the invidious effects of “white supremacy” on black individuals, and as if the participants’ sexual problems were not enough, also on the exhaustive pathology menu are OCD and something called “musical obsession disorder.”
The character who seems to have the most powerful revelation is Kalukango’s Kaneisha — Kalukango is perhaps first among equals in the cast — whose frigid silence through much of the therapy session feels positively radioactive. But toward the play’s close Kalukango delivers with a fine ferocity a rather overblown monologue expressing the idea that her psychological problems, not to mention her sexual ones, are all due to the “virus” that is her partner. (The decimation of the country’s “indigenous population” enters the picture here, rather startlingly.) I still left unable to answer the question of why an intelligent woman who already felt marginalized in her relationship would think portraying a slave might improve matters.
All of the actors, under the playful, nicely pitched direction of Robert O’Hara, give performances of unwavering commitment, nimbly negotiating the play’s sometimes unwieldy blending of tones. But ultimately it’s hard to interpret what Harris means to say about how this bizarre therapy affects the couples. The therapy fails pretty spectacularly, but is it because the ideas behind it are dubious and misguided, or because it exposes a harsh truth the couples have never confronted: that they have lived their intimate lives under the shadow of racism? Can Harris have it both ways?
Maybe my ambivalence about the play is a mark in its favor: Good theater raises more questions than it answers, and engages with issues that are complicated to “unpack,” to borrow a word. Whatever else it may or may not be, “Slave Play” is the rare theatrical experience that makes you laugh as hard as it makes you think, which itself is an achievement of a rare order.
“Slave Play” opened at the Golden Theatre on Sun., Oct. 6, 2019.
Creative: Written by Jeremy O. Harris; Original Music by Lindsay Jones; Directed by Robert O’Hara; Scenic Design by Clint Ramos; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang; Sound Design by Lindsay Jones.
Producers: Seaview Productions, Troy Carter, Level Forward, Nine Stories, Sing Out, Louise!, Cohen Hopkins Productions, Thomas Laub, Blair Russell, WEB Productions, Salman Al-Rashid, Roth-Manella Productions, Jeremy O. Harris and New York Theatre Workshop.
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan.