“Why are they always sending me the crazy shit?”
That was award-winning playwright and director Robert O’Hara’s initial reaction after reading the opening scene of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play. Set on a plantation a few miles south of Richmond, Va., the show’s first act features three interracial couples simulating sex and various forms of dominance, fetish, and kink. Rihanna’s “Work” kicks off the proceedings.
In less than two years after its first professionally staged reading at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the play—which uses an experiment known as “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” as a conduit to explore racism, sexuality, and generational trauma—has both empowered and polarized audiences. What it hasn’t done is compromise.
“You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all,” writes Harris in his notes on Slave Play’s style—something O’Hara instinctually latched on to upon that introductory reading.
“My first play also dealt with satire, slavery, and sexuality,” says O’Hara. “I was very interested if he could earn this most outrageous first act. I realized not only had he earned it, but that the entire rest of the play was a deconstruction of the first act.”
Harris weaves two queer storylines into Slave Play’s larger narrative, addressing the multilayered complexities of same-sex interracial relationships. One of them involves literal bootlicking, which has pushed some audience members to walk out within the show’s first 30 minutes.
Theatergoers first encounter the “dingy, off-white” Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood)—described as “a dark, black man whose life has been lived with the full trauma of his color”—in the pre-abolition South. But Harris flips the historical narrative, placing Gary in a position of power and Dustin as the indentured servant. The pair’s erotic role-playing unleashes both orgasm and tears.
“When we started rehearsals and began talking about kink and fetish play, Jeremy very much wanted to make clear that there was no shaming involved, no matter what kind of play was involved with the couples or our conversations at large,” says Cusati-Moyer, who has been with the production through all three incarnations, from the O’Neill to New York Theatre Workshop to its current version on Broadway. “Sexuality and what turns us on as human beings is a very difficult, private conversation, and we are bringing it forward to a public conversation.”
However, he adds, we must acknowledge the facts. “There is a history, especially in regards to an interracial queer lens, of a fetishization and objectifying of the black male, and that leads to a different realm of conversation.”
Those conversations unravel in Act 2 as the couple confronts the multifaceted implications of their biracial relationship. Yes, they squabble over how each views the gentrification of their Harlem neighborhood, but in a much more profound way the pair exhibits how objectification, particularly when tainted with generations of racial supremacy, can fester like cancer.
“For almost a decade I’ve given myself over to someone who doesn’t dignify me, who acts like he’s the prize and I’m the lucky recipient,” Gary says in one scene. “No, motherfucker, I’m the prize. Always have been, always will be. Somehow I forgot that.”
It’s not just Harris’ words that have stirred the pot. A media frenzy erupted after the production’s Off-Broadway opening last year—one fueled, in part, by a production photo depicting a black slave twerking in front of her master. The reviews (“gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering” wrote Jesse Green for The New York Times) catapulted Slave Play into the spotlight. The work also fell under the microscope, eliciting criticism from many who had not even seen it. One audience member started a petition on Change.org to shut down the play, stating that “there should be a line that freedom of expression does not cross when it’s connected to human atrocities, especially ones that have not truly been atoned for.” To date, more than 6,000 people have signed it.
As a black queer actor, Blankson-Wood was immediately drawn to Slave Play’s complex, divisive exploration of sexual identity as well as its racial themes. “This play, I think, lives in a queer space more than a gay space,” he says. “There is something about these characters that is outside the normal gay experience—something ‘alternative’ in the way they relate to each other and are trying to work through their relationship.”
Cusati-Moyer and Blankson-Wood, graduates of Yale School of Drama and longtime friends, had the benefit of familiarity as they dove into the rehearsal process, but the demands of Harris’ script launched them into unchartered territory, as actors and as queer men.
“It’s been particularly interesting to work on characters where the veil between them and us is very thin,” says Cusati-Moyer. “We are not Dustin and Gary, but could we jump right into these people? Yes. We had such a gift with Jeremy as our friend, writing these roles with us in mind, as people who have been in interracial relationships. There’s a delicate balance every day. How do we sit and wear these shoes, and how do we take them off?”
Slave Play’s limited run ended at New York Theatre Workshop in January 2019. By July, a team of diverse producers including Atom Factory’s Troy Carter, Level Forward (also represented on Broadway this season with Jagged Little Pill), Jake Gyllenhaal, and others had capitalized nearly $3.9 million for a flashier uptown version. But if O’Hara was going to help shepherd the piece to a broader and even more discerning audience, it would need to be on the right terms.
“It was a very big surprise when Jeremy said to me, ‘I think we’re going to Broadway,’” O’Hara recalls. When one of the producers called to make it official, O’Hara wouldn’t believe the news until he was sitting in the theater. “I was in full-blown denial from the moment I heard it was happening. I do that because I have to protect my heart.” He also wanted to ensure that producers and the creative team still controlled the narrative.
“I had a meeting with the producers where I said, ‘It’s very important that we know how to speak about this play,'” says O’Hara. “I had death threats. People denigrated my reputation, and it was the same with Jeremy. It was not the day to be jumping up and down, saying, ’We’re taking Slave Play to Broadway!’ We needed to control the context, and part of that meant a diversified producing team, an array of black women in the room, and an intimacy coach. There are consequences to putting the word slave on the side of a commercial building.”
Moving the show to Broadway also meant amping up its production value and calibrating the performances for the 804-seat Golden Theatre. “I think the dark, downtown version of Slave Play that’s like a little bit dour and a little more serious is something that some people want of the play,” Harris told TimeOut New York. “But I think the version that we really like is this blockbuster, 11-o’clock-number version.”
“The first act has always been a satire, but the play had demonstratively changed. [The actors] knew they were in a hit play,” says O’Hara, describing the state of the work by the end of its Off-Broadway run. “When we got to Broadway, it was a natural fit. They were already there. They had built the muscle.”
No longer would the audience be filled with downtown theatergoers and subscribers. Slave Play had been planted a block from Times Square, the tourist capital of the world.
“If you don’t walk into this building knowing what this story is about, then you deserve what you get,” O’Hara says. “This is not a bunch of people dancing around. It says ’Slave Play.’ It says ’provocation.’ It says ’controversy.'”
“You have a responsibility as an audience member to inform yourself,” he continues, “because it is a choice for you to go into this space. You can get on the bus, or you can get off the bus. There’s always an exit. But what you can’t do is get on the bus and tell the driver what to do. This is our ride.”
To make that ride a little smoother, the production has extended the conversation beyond the realm of the theater, offering online resources and hosting panel discussions focused on race, gender, and sexuality. Slave Play violently exposes the historical impact of white supremacy, and suggests that the LGBTQ community is not immune to its societal corrosion. The characters of Gary and Dustin fight an uphill battle, additionally succumbing to layers of collective marginalization. Gay men have historically lacked role models for healthy relationships, and they stand at the precipice of change, with the world as they’ve been taught crumbling beneath their feet.
For Cusati-Moyer and Blankson-Wood, the show offers an opportunity to preserve a space for the past but shift the paradigm for future generations.
“White supremacy morphs,” says Blankson-Wood. “Yes, slavery has been abolished, but you can follow that track through Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration—it has this way of shifting.”
Through the process of working on the play, the actors have explored and discovered their own connections to the intersection of race, sexuality, and power.
“For me, regardless of the racial makeup of a relationship, I’ve thought a lot about how I was valued, and how I was valuing myself,” says Blankson-Wood. “It’s been really healing.”
“The play is so much about power,” adds Cusati-Moyer, “and how we give our bodies and hearts over to people who abuse that power. Are we taking care of each other, or are we abusing each other? Human beings are looking for connection in all different forms. Within gay culture is a fear of a scarcity of love as opposed to abundance, so we’re operating in that scarcity.”
If Slave Play is often described as “provocative” and “controversial,” less attention has been paid to its potential to teach and nourish, to spark a dialogue of who we are as a queer community and an evolving nation. It doesn’t matter if Broadway is ready for Slave Play. Its time is now.