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The subversive ‘Slave Play’ peels back the veneer of racial innocence in Northern whites

Jeremy O. Harris’ play puts interracial couples in sex therapy to show how whites see themselves as racially neutral

This essay is riddled with spoilers. The play is lit, though. So we’re not ruining it.

Despite the name, there is no room for illusion in Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.

In a radical new play by Jeremy O. Harris, the therapy, also known as “slave play,” is a treatment for interracial couples who aren’t connecting sexually.

Of course, we don’t know that when we first meet Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) when the curtain rises on Act 1, and the audience finds itself watching (sometimes in horror) as Kaneisha and Massa Jim flirt with each other in character as a “Negress” who can’t stop twerking to Rihanna’s “Work” and an overseer who’d rather just be called Jim.

Soon, the audience is busy trying to sort out its confusion as it watches Alana (Annie McNamara) and Phillip (Sullivan Jones) in a bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM) scene that feels slightly anachronistic. You sit wondering to yourself, when exactly did patent leather fetish boots come into existence, anyway? Surely not before 1865? Just exactly what kind of alternate universe is this?

Out come Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) to explain: Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy is the brainchild of an overeducated, interracial lesbian couple who dress in matching cognac-colored loafers and speak almost entirely in therapy jargon.

The real fun begins with “unpacking,” and soon enough we find out that three couples are part of a study at the fictional MacGregor Plantation, somewhere outside of Richmond, Virginia. In each case, the nonwhite partners have lost interest in sex.

Watching Slave Play is like sitting next to a couple in a restaurant and eavesdropping as you give imagined context to whatever screwed-up vignette of their union you happen to be witnessing.

Sex, of course, is a barometer for deeper issues in each relationship. The magic of Slave Play, directed with stunning precision by Robert O’Hara, is that it dares to show white people to themselves, that they are moving through the world with an assumed neutrality that doesn’t actually exist. This becomes clear in a group therapy scene, thanks to an expertly studied and yet wholly natural performance by McNamara, who is Tracy Flick-ing her way through therapy as if it is a game that can be won. Alana does not see the biracial Phillip as white or black, but “just Phillip.”

Oh, boy.

The set, designed by Clint Ramos, is mirrored, and for most of the show, the houselights are never fully darkened. We see not only the actors onstage but also ourselves, hazily reflected while seated, stadium-style. There is no hiding here. Instead, we witness whiteness, and we witness our collective reactions as it’s shown to us in the context of group therapy:

The overtalking.

The thoughtless solipsism.

The willful ignorance.

The performative self-flagellation.

The squeamishness surrounding anything that reminds white people of their whiteness.

Every white person in Slave Play is trying to outrun their whiteness, even the therapist Patricia. It is a delightful send-up of the way well-to-do, overeducated white people discuss racism as though it has nothing to do with them personally.

Harris has not yet graduated from the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. And yet he is already the toast of the New York theater scene, with not one but two plays debuting this season. The second, Daddy, stars Alan Cumming and will open in March. It’s about a young black artist and his wealthy white patron, his — well, his “Daddy.” He’s also collaborated on the script for Zola, a forthcoming film based on a viral 2015 Twitter thread of the improbable adventures of a Florida stripper.

Slave Play is a delightful send-up of the way well-to-do, overeducated white people discuss racism as though it has nothing to do with them personally.

Wisdom and timeliness ripple through Slave Play, but the light it shines on white women is especially bright and unflattering. 2018 seems to be the year of showing white people to themselves, especially women, who benefit most from an unearned presumption of innocuousness, both in works of fiction and in real life. (See this year’s collection of viral videos of white women using the police as customer service agents whenever they’re irked by the presence of brown skin.)

The pleasant-seeming-but-diabolical white woman is a recurring trope, from Adora Crellin on HBO’s Sharp Objects, hidden behind yards of floral prints and impeccable manners, to Get Out’s Rose Armitage to the character of Miss in the play What to Send Up When It Goes Down. She is such an archetype that it doesn’t take much to render her recognizable: Ugo Chukwu plays Miss with a pair of white lace opera-length gloves, a strand of pearls, a Southern accent and a repeated insistence that “my hands are clean.” Her hands may be clean, but her soul is another matter altogether.

But there is a provincialism endemic to these character renderings, one associated with everything south of the Mason-Dixon Line. What makes Slave Play so subversive, and what ties it to Get Out, is its focus on Northern whiteness, and the way both works peel back a veneer of racial innocence that still gets ascribed to this region of the country. I carry no such illusions: I have been called the N-word while sitting in a cab in Manhattan and have cringed with fear at the sight of a massive Confederate battle flag affixed to a pickup truck in Southern California.

America is America everywhere.

And yet, to make this point clear, the black characters of Slave Play bring their white partners to the MacGregor Plantation, hoping to mend what ails their flaccid relationships: their white partners’ inability to be honest about their whiteness. Will it work? Can it?

The plantation, after all, was and remains the site of so many lies — lies that continue to permeate our national psyche, lies that must be unlearned if our great experiment in democracy is to flourish, lies that were immortalized and celebrated with Margaret Mitchell’s pen and Victor Fleming’s camera in Gone With the Wind.

Carry me back to Old Virginny, indeed.

Teyonah Parris (right) as Kaneisha and Paul Alexander Nolan as Jim in Slave Play.

Joan Marcus

In Slave Play, Kaneisha has her therapeutic breakthrough when she realizes that there is nothing wrong with her. But there is something very wrong with her handsome English boyfriend, who refuses to see how he participates in and benefits from what he views as a fundamentally American ailment. In a monologue at the close of Act 2, she hisses:

There’s no way
I can unknow …
that when your people landed on this land
a third of the indigenous population of the entire continent died of disease. Not disease you actively gave them.
Your mere presence was biological warfare.
You’re a virus.
You’re the virus
That’s why I look at you as though
you are infected.

Slave Play doesn’t just dispel illusions, it takes great pleasure in doing so. In his notes to the actors, Harris writes, “Slave Play is a comedy of sorts. … You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all.”

And so, in a dangerously delicious way, the playwright says to the audience: Here, honey. Put this ball gag in your mouth. We’re gonna have some fun tonight.

Liner Notes

Slave Play runs at New York Theatre Workshop through January 13.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.