Slavery isn’t Funny, But Jeremy O'Harris' ‘Slave Play’ Is [Review]
If the objective of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, which is now on Broadway, was to create work that brought about laughs based on America’s worst nightmare, then it was a success.
*Disclaimer, this piece may contain spoilers about the plot of the Broadway play Slave Play.
Laughter in a theatre during a play about slavery isn’t easy to digest, specifically in a room full of Black folks. That’s the thing about Black laughter — it can’t just be engaged with as a reaction to a funny thing. It is a type of freedom for us. In Dr. Maya Angelou’s “The Mask” she declares a certain kind of laugh — one done by Black people that have been made to be subservient to survive, “a survival apparatus” she calls it — as not genuine laughter. There was an era where Black people might be lynched if we were to express our roars inspired by truly finding something funny. To roar with laughter is transgressive when we are reminded that the Black and meek have been socialized to not roar, but to part our lips and make a sound. Hehe.
When I saw the divisive Slave Play during the blackout night on Broadway, a night where Black people were exclusively invited to watch the show on Broadway amongst other Black people, I heard such roars; these were the types of laughs that come from the gut that no church, no fancy theatre, or slave owner could quell. If Jeremy O. Harris’ primary objective was to create a work that could bring about laughs based on America’s worst nightmare, then it was a success. I heard it.
Slave Play is quite a simple and clever idea. It follows the group therapy session of three different interracial couples that divulge the idiosyncrasies in their relationship that are also representative of sociopolitical identities we have either embodied or witnessed — or at least that’s the hope. This makes it so the white woman, Alana played by Annie McNamara, or the black woman, Kaneisha played by Joaquina Kalukango, aren’t simply characters, but representative of an idea and social construct. Meaning the white man from London, Paul Alexander Nolan, of course, is The White Man; designed to not just be representative of a singular personality but a vehicle to discuss whiteness and colonization. Commentary is made throughout, but what I was left in astonishment about was that these characters could only be produced by a master observer — which is the hallmark of a gifted storyteller. Each character felt successful in their self-realization and in the allegory they were intended to represent.
The controversy about creating a play that deals with chattel slavery with a sense of levity, irreverence, and eroticism isn’t about humor but respect: can we laugh at our ancestral pain in the same way Kevin Hart encourages us to laugh at his personal pain? Do we have the right? For as long as Black Americans have been making art, these questions have never been relevant because most work about the topic that has lasted and been revered has maintained a lens of realism and reverence for the act of terrorism enacted on African people.
Here, in 2019, we have Harris who brings as much accuracy and care to the subject as Quentin Tarantino brought to Nazi Germany in Inglorious Bastards — or to the same topic of chattel slavery in Django Unchained; which is the only work that I can recall that created an action-fantasy and didn’t attempt to create a dramatic depiction of chattel slavery that made the viewer feel compelled to see it as a real-life portrayal. I recall bell hooks speaking during a lecture at The New School that despite 12 Years A Slave being in the genre of realism and drama, we are still witnessing a fantasy. We are still witnessing somebody’s imagining of an event that is unimaginable. She reminds us that even the rape scene of Patsey, Lupita Nyong’o’s character, was generated by the director and writer of the film, as a way to add drama and intensity to the film. Regardless, it did not take place in the memoir. We can assume these efforts were primarily to make it appear more real, edgier even, but still, bell hooks reminds us, it was a fantasy.
I hold these ideas about fantasy as personal truths when consuming film, music, and television especially, but that doesn’t make Slave Play any easier to digest or less confusing, but it does better contextualize the confusion I have around the laughter as a personal, intimate reaction to a piece of art instead of an abrasion to my sense of Black historical reality and ancestral pride. It’s just as much an affront to my sense of respectability as anything else.
The more controversial portion of the story — it being a comedy about slavery and sex — is more difficult to identify because each Black American has their own relationship with our sordid history. For Alex Haley, in 1976, it was was a saga called Roots. In 1987, for the greatest writer the English language will ever know, Toni Morrison, it was a horror called Beloved. In 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer is a take on slavery that is magical realism.
Jeremy O. Harris’ perspective of America’s original sin feels both silly and definitive because it is. It is a generation-defining kind of work that is as sarcastic, irreverent, and non-respectable as the gen-z and millennial audience Harris is feeding. It’s even soundtracked by Rihanna. It’s a disrespectful and uncomfortable work fit for the tragic-comedy that is the Donald Trump presidency and this nation’s current status. But it still feels deeply pleasurable and rebellious to laugh at the one last thing Black people have been told to always take seriously — And laugh we did, not just with a hehe, nah, but with a Magic Johnson Theater-level roar.
Less than a review or synopsis, this more of a confession: I did laugh. And the laugh inspired a conversation that led me to talk to my ancestors in new, profound and provocative ways. It made me ask questions like, is it OK to giggle at that? Would she be upset? Would he be ashamed? Would they even care? Fundamentally, it made me engage these souls as beings that were human. That laughed and roared at all types of things in a life still unimaginable to most because that’s what you do to move along.
And if only for that celestial dialogue between me and the people that dreamed me, I can’t say whether Slave Play is good or bad, but I can testify that it is Black art.