Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Review: Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” – An Intense Study of Sex and Race
A trick of a play … Olivia Washington and Kit Harington in Slave Play at Noël Coward theatre. Photograph: Helen Murray

What happens in the bedroom, with all the power play between couples, is vital documentation in literature, said Doris Lessing in defense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This old yet compelling argument effectively supports Jeremy O. Harris’s examination of race dynamics through sexual interactions.

The central idea of his play is that historical racial violence manifests somatically across generations, revealing itself in sexual dynamics. Its enactment is uniquely bold: a giant black dildo on a Gone With the Wind-style four-poster bed, antebellum master-slave cosplay, and sexualized boot licking are all part of the shock-inducing tableau.

Though the shock value is softened by a cartoonish presentation, the play still has its critics. Featuring three interracial couples in a unique form of sex therapy, it sparked outrage during its off-Broadway run in 2018, even leading to a petition for its closure. Coming to London with twelve Tony award nominations, a spin-off HBO documentary, and star-studded Broadway audiences, including Rihanna, who has a song featured in the show, the play arrives heavily decorated.

In terms of stage shocks, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview was more genuinely angry, and Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop was more painfully intimate. Harris’s play Daddy presented more originality but also more abstraction. Slave Play, however, strikes a balance with three distinct parts and an appealing frolicking nature.

The characters include Kaneisha (Olivia Washington), full of suppressed rage, and Jim (Kit Harington), who is resistant to the proceedings. Their interactions are tense, with Harington playing a sufficiently priggish Brit. Phillip (Aaron Heffernan), a mixed-heritage hunk, adds spice to the vanilla marriage of the naively Karen-esque Alana (Annie McNamara). The most compelling couple are the middle-class Black Gary (Fisayo Akinade, superb) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), who looks white but identifies as “other.”

From Kaneisha’s first twerk as an indentured slave, it becomes clear that this is a trick-laden play. Directed by Robert O’Hara and running for two continuous hours, it throws its subject matter in the air without quite grounding it, despite its romping humor and brisk pace.

The role play is deliberately stagey, reminding the audience of its artifice. As the therapy circle unfolds, characters reveal themselves amidst satire. Counselors Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) use comic buzzwords and exhibit passive-aggressive militancy, mixing therapy talk, race theory, and academic language to undercut emotional depth. This results in an unresolved tension between dramatizing anger and being playfully incendiary.

However, when the tone flips in outbursts and monologues, the play suddenly crackles with energy. Phillip’s speech about the racialized gaze and Gary’s fight with Dustin are particularly charged moments. The final act, although fantastical, is the most honest and compelling segment.

Harris skillfully navigates the intersections of gender, race, class, and colorism, making the play feel distinctly American as it confronts plantation slavery. The therapy section taps into a broader trauma faced by Black characters. It captures a specific moment, seemingly predicting the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in 2020, with language likening racism to a “virus” and acknowledging white supremacy.

Clint Ramos’s set features a mirrored back wall reflecting the audience, reminding us that this play is about “us” alongside the onstage characters. Ultimately, everyone is implicated, whether there is a mirror or not. Leaving Slave Play without feeling a need to argue, describe moments, or express solidarity or dissent seems impossible. It might be flawed, but it is undeniably charismatic and provocative theater—a true event.

Source: source names