A Slave Play Review
Slave Play’s mission makes itself clear from the outset: this is a play about discomfort - specifically, the discomfort surrounding the 400-year history of slavery and disenfranchisement that our nation is founded upon. It is also a play about confrontation and the potential healing from national wounds that may occur in the process. Discomfort, confrontation, healing; these experiences have been explored at length in black art, yet however eager it is to continue the purgative work done by its predecessors, Slave Play falls short of catharsis.
The drama of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play unfolds as such: three interracial couples engage in aggressive acts of sexual release in a plantation setting during the Antebellum South. Various scenes of subjection are played out with each couple: a white overseer forces a black slave girl to eat cantaloupe off of a floor she just swept before setting himself upon her; a white woman instructs her “mulatto” house slave to play her slave music before penetrating him; a Black male overseer forces his white indentured servant to lick his boots in order to achieve climax. Each scene is excessive in its violence. The attempts at humor to lighten the mood during the act did not particularly help, especially given a white audience that responded a little too well to every racist joke or slur. Before long, the previous act is revealed to be literal play — acting as part of an interracial couple’s therapy retreat designed to help Black people address the latent racial tension in their relationships with their white partners.
From this point on we are thrust into an overlong exploration of white guilt through a series of very on the nose performances. Each of these white partners represents a certain “type” of well-meaning white liberal whose attempts at racial sensitivity typically fall flat. When confronted with their inability to “see” race, each of the white characters deflect accusations of racism through grand declarations of love to their partners, and throw tantrums when they are inevitably rebuked for the superficiality of their so-called commitment. The play has no issues making fun of its white characters, but this is an era where comedy and self-effacement is regularly used by white media personalities to make light of their obvious racism. Rarely do we see a truly unfiltered exploration of whiteness from a black person in the public sphere, a problem that the play recognizes, but does curiously little to rectify.
It’s frustrating to see an opportunity to do so go to waste. After all, the playwright has control over what his characters do and say. Despite this freedom, O’ Harris doesn’t give his Black characters room to express much of anything outside of frustration and panic. This is particularly evident in the case of Kaneisha (played by Joaquina Kalukango) who performed the role of the slave girl earlier in the play. Our first introduction to her is through her humiliation at the hands of her white partner Jim (played by Paul Alexander Nolan). Later, we see she is clearly upset by the events of the previous act, but is given few lines in the script to fully articulate her anxieties. It is not until the final act that Kaneisha gains a chance to unfold through a monologue, during which she expresses the sharp pain she always experiences mid coitus with Jim, which she identifies as the memory of abduction, the legacy of the plantation, and the knowledge that this violence is ongoing and is manifest through their own relationship. She claims the elders are looking down on them, awaiting their acknowledgement that the man she sleeps with every night is a “demon,” and declaring that in having the courage to acknowledge this, she may live with their blessing. The message here is clear: Discomfort is the sickness, obsession is the symptom, acknowledgment is the release. Thus, despite everything she has been through, it is only after Kaneisha “challenges” Jim by putting on an exhibition of her own trauma for him (and the audience) to witness that she is granted clarity.
This is a directive that comes up frequently in Black media: we need to challenge our audience, we need to say what has not been said, we need to be seen. It is assumed that through seeing what we’re not meant to look at we will be shocked, hurt maybe, but ultimately able to begin the healing process necessary to cope with the brutality of the past. While sitting in the theater however, I was struck by two thoughts. One: while much of what went on in the play can be described as shocking, very little can be described as revelatory. The white characters specifically were familiar to the point where I did not see a need for the exposition delivered through various monologues, which felt incredibly didactic. Two: regarding Kaneisha’s character, it was very clear that her words and actions were not those of a Black woman, but of someone speaking for a one. In other words, the playwright’s voice here is apparent, and it is partially to blame for why the dénouement feels so lacking. O’ Harris suggests that acknowledgement is liberatory in and of itself, but why should the actually existing Black woman that Kaneisha supposedly represents accept such a mediocre consolation prize for her suffering?
It is also interesting to consider that there are two endings to the play. In one, which I saw, Jim interrupts Kaneisha’s monologue, taking her revelation about the ancestors as his cue to acknowledge the demon in the room by forcing Kaneisha onto the bed and adopting his overseer persona from before. In this version, Kaneisha, while initially aroused, at a certain point yells at Paul to stop. She then gets out of the bed, tears up the white dress she wore as part of her slave girl act, and both begin to cry. In the second, perhaps earlier version Jim doesn’t stop – they continue and presumably both reach climax. Afterwards only Jim cries and Kaneisha utters her final words in the play: “Thank you.” My question to the playwright is this: for what does Kaneisha have to be thankful? Additionally, what prompted the ending change to the softer version of the goal of such a scene is ultimately to shock?
These thoughts unfolded into what I believe is the play’s weak point: there is a preoccupation here with its white audience, and in particular, the subjection of Black people to violent displays of white power in order prove a point to said audience. The violence in the play is to such an extent that I had to wonder if Black audiences were truly a priority here. The fact that the Black characters barely even spoke to one another certainly didn’t give off the impression that we were.
In the past black artists have always struggled with the question of the potential white reader/viewer/listener. It was not uncommon for artists to try to open up space for confrontation regarding the violence of white supremacy through the perspective of one who had felt the brunt of said violence. There were, however, voices of dissent against what some considered a centering of whiteness within Black narratives. Toni Morrison was one such voice. Specifically I am reminded of her words from an interview with The Guardian in which she recalls a time during the Black power movement when many Black authors would insist on confrontation with the oppressor through art, to which Morrison responded “I understand that. But you don't have to look at the world through his eyes. I'm not a stereotype; I'm not somebody else's version of who I am.” These words ring true in the context of the play, which seems more excited at the idea of simply having the opportunity to address white people than the healing work it claims to do. Additionally it is troubling that humiliation and abuse of Black people was considered necessary to draw the audience into this type of conversation in the first place. Where is the consideration for Black women and Black members of the LGBTQ community for whom reenactments of racialized sexual assault may only serve to further traumatize rather than heal? The play’s methodology seems inconsistent with its message, and if its goal is to help Black people confront our collective trauma, I did not feel that it hit its mark.
The problem, as I see it, is that I did not feel like I was in conversation with the playwright. There was no, in Morrison’s words “assumption of the centrality” of the Black community here. After all, what Black person really needs the history of chattel slavery or the concept of fetishization explained? I was disappointed to find that, in its desire to strike a revolutionary pose and shock its white audience into self awareness, it failed to find any real way of de-centering said audience in the conversation. It is for this reason I believe so many white critics had such effusive praise for the play — whether they are being teased, mocked, or admonished for their ignorance, white people remained the stars of the show. The characters in the play may have been going through it but the audience never actually left their comfort zone.
I am going to make a possibly controversial statement and say that I don’t think it’s necessary to use Black pain to prove a point about race to anyone. I don’t think it’s necessary for a Black artist to address a white audience at all for their work to be meaningful, or for every facet of the Black experience to be translatable. This is not to say that Black artists don’t have the right to discuss pain, trauma, white supremacy, or really anything else through their work — anything is possible in the artistic world and no Black artist need feel limited there. My concern is, rather, that the play does not seem willing to examine its own fascination with whiteness, that though it is expressing a desire to reach all audiences it does not seem able to communicate effectively with its Black audience. There is a rich vein of discourse on the subject of race in America occurring everywhere in the country right now. I have had conversations with friends, colleagues, and total strangers who have been highlighting just how radical Black thought is and can be. Intergenerational conversations on reparations, generational trauma, and traditions of radical Black resistance have been occurring for quite some time now and are ever evolving. When we choose to harness the energy of these conversations already–in–progress, when we choose to engage in conversation with each other, we can fully explore possibilities of Black life that extend beyond the limiting parameters imposed on us via white supremacy, and express the full breadth of our humanity. The will to acknowledge a difficult past in a valid one — I would like to see what happens when we move beyond acknowledgement.