Jeremy O. Harris Is Prepared To Make You Uncomfortable With 'Slave Play'
September is a tricky time in New York City. Some days the ninth month can be charming with its cool breeze and clear skies, you forget Old Man Winter is three months away. Other days, September is deceitfully chilly dropping 10 or 15 degrees after sunset. You hug yourself to create warmth and to also block shame for not knowing summer has packed its bags. On the fifth day of September in New York’s East Village, the weather, however, is kind. Clouds like stretched cotton balls float through the sky, while the sun peeks through adding just enough heat without being arresting. It was, like Bill Withers described, a lovely day.
The beauty of the weather was only matched by Jeremy O.Harris’ bold yet inviting presence. Wearing head-to-toe Telfar Clemens, the Yale School of Drama playwright mingled with friends, castmates and the press inside the penthouse suite of The Standard. Holding the last puffs of a loosie and a black purse, O’Harris and I make eye contact. He smiles. I wave and a second later he's pulled into another round of congratulations, cheek kisses, and praise.
Such is the life of an award-winning playwright.
Harris’ production Slave Play earned chatter while at the New York Theater Workshop and has since made its way to Broadway, making the 30-year-old the youngest playwright of color to accomplish the feat. Yet before the mecca to the world's theatrical stage, Slave Play merited quite the hubbub and scathing critiques for its plot. Set on the MacGregor plantation in the antebellum south, three interracial couples work through their relationship woes made present by their sexual disconnect.
And that’s all that will be said about Slave Play. The rest must be witnessed to be understood or at least examined. Harris knows the play will make many uncomfortable and he's okay with that. The Virginia native stands at a towering 6-foot-5 and has always known his mere presence was off-putting to some. Add his Afro to the mix and Harris, a black queer man with hair that defies gravity, is too much to digest. Thankfully, he doesn't care.
He walks over to the terrace and we both lean in for a hug but stop prematurely and settle on a professional yet distant handshake.
“Are you a hugger?” I ask.
“Yes,” he smiles.
Relief. Huggers finally able to hug.
O’Harris is pressed for time so we only chat for 15 minutes but we gag over both being Geminis, talk about white discomfort, why, of all names to give a play, was Slave Play the best choice and whether or not white America can fully love black people.
VIBE: When creating Slave Play was white discomfort ever a thought?
Jeremy O. Harris: I had this moment with someone the other day and we were talking about the importance of mirrors and seeing each other inside the mirrors of the set. Well, the reason the idea came about was because at Yale the theater was in a three-quarter thrust and the second year project is one of the smallest projects to do. The audience, I think, is 70 people every night. It wasn’t a huge audience, maybe 90, I don’t know.
Anyway, it’s a three-quarter thrust. I went to Yale at a historic time. There were more people of color there than at any other time. The craziest thing about the show for me was while watching, I saw all the people of color checking in with one another throughout the play and them having these moments of revelation together and looking at white people like, "Why are you laughing then?"
I make people uncomfortable. I make people who are straight uncomfortable. I feel like everything I do, I do loudly by accident.
What’s your sign?
I’m a Gemini.
Oh my God! I’m a Gemini. When’s your birthday?
I'm June 17.
(Laughs) I think being a Gemini is also part of why I live loudly. I don’t shy away from who I am. My hair has always been big. People might eroticize my hair or fetishize my hair but they’re still uncomfortable by it because their hair can’t do this. Also, because I went to predominately white institutions as a child, I learned quickly that my intellect made people uncomfortable.
Were you usually the smartest one in the room?
Yeah, or at least the teacher would say that. I think part of the problem with growing up in the south is everything is so racialized, even compliments. It would be "he’s smarter than the white kids and the black kids."
Did you have any other names for the play besides Slave Play?
For me, titles are what make a play and the minute I thought of this play was the minute I was thinking about all of the different slave films. The first thing I thought about was on Twitter there was this whole discussion about 12 Years of Slave with people saying, "Why do we always have to be in a slave movie?" and then I thought, "Oh, a slave movie. There are so many slave plays...Oh, Slave Play!
There’s a litany of narratives that can come from that and a litany of histories that come from that. I was like, "Let me try and make something that was the end all be all of these histories" for at least me. It doesn’t have to be the end all be all for the next writer who wants to interrogate these similar ideas and similar histories, but it gets to be my one foray into this question.
I saw Slave Play off-Broadway and it was a lot to take in. However, I think the play isn’t so much about interracial relationships as it is white people’s relationship with black people. Am I correct?
I think you are. I’ve never written a play that’s going to be about one thing.
Because you aren’t one thing.
Exactly. One of my professors said the problem with a lot of American writers is that they write plays that function like similies. This is like this, whereas in the U.K. and Europe and a lot of places I love, those places function like metaphors. I wanted to have a play that functioned as a metaphor. So it’s not like, "Being in an interracial couple is like..." It’s "An interracial couple is" and it becomes a container for a lot of different histories and a lot of different confluences of conflict which I think are important.
Relationships can become an amazing space of interrogation for a lot of our interpersonal relationships, our historical relationships and our thematic, deeply guarded emotional truths that we haven’t worked out on a macro, but we can work them out on this microcosm of a relationship in a way like white-American politics and black-American politics are also in this weird symbiotic relationship.
Do you think white America can ever fully love black people?
I think love is something that’s beyond words. I think its something we have to only know in action in the same way that I don’t know if black America will or should ever love white America, do you know what I mean? How do you love something that’s harmed you so deeply?
But then again, if we’re using relationships as metaphors, [then] we’ve seen people try and make sense of that love in a lot of different ways. You see black America’s relationship to capitalism, which is something that benefits whiteness more than it could ever benefit us, yet there is this sort of weird romance that happens in so much of our music. So much of our literature and so much of our art, with the idea of capitalism even with its own interrogation and criticisms. But there is this weird push and pull. It’s similar to someone who’s in this battered relationship with an ex-lover.
I read you didn’t expect to receive so much criticism from the black community. How did that make you feel?
It made me feel sad and reflective in a lot of ways. I wanted to make theater for a certain audience and, for me, the best vehicle for making theater for that audience was the Internet. I was like, "How can I flood the Internet with these ideas about what my plays are so I can maybe get a new audience into the theater with more excitement?" And that worked in a certain way. What I didn’t take into account was that I basically asked everyone to learn how to ride a horse bareback without ever learning the fundamentals of riding a horse.
People were interrogating the ideas on the Internet of what this play might be without an understanding of how the theater functions, and so I think that made them feel very displaced from what this play was, and when you feel displaced from something you have to react to it. I don’t blame anyone for their reactions to the title or the images they saw. Some of those images aren’t images I would’ve ever wanted people to interrogate without the context of the theater. In hindsight, I now know, like, "Okay, cool." I do this experiment and I saw some of the false positives of it and I saw the actual positives of it and now I can move on and keep building and repair the relationship. I get to now watch it with more careful eyes.
What questions do you hope white people ask themselves?
I think the whole play is about: how can people listen in a way that’s not shallow but deeply? I think at this moment a lot of white theater audiences believe they’re listening deeply to the black artists that are having this moment right now. But I think when you read the words they write about it, and the quickness with which they have an opinion about it, you recognize they’re not listening deeply. So quickly they’re telling us what they think we said and it’s like, "No, take a second, and let us speak on it." Take a step back.
Slave Play is playing at the John Golden Theater. Get your tickets here.