After its off-Broadway run, the much-discussed and provocative “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris is now on Broadway, and I find it impossible to discuss it properly without telling what goes on in the course of it. If you haven’t seen “Slave Play” and want to approach it without knowing the big revelation that takes place in its midst, read no further until after you have seen it.
Everything that occurs is symbolic of the viewpoint that black-white relations are spiked with baggage from the history of slavery, and racist power struggles exist today, as exemplified by what goes on with the interracial couples sharply depicted. (The play is two hours long without an intermission.)
What gives the treatise an extra kick is that much is very funny even though the aim is serious. There is also extremely explicit sex talk, with simulated sexual action for the audience to take in, as well as some male frontal nudity. As I am a believer that anything goes, I take all of that in stride, but some audience members may be jolted.
Even more challenging is the mix of humor with black-white prejudices, as the author, in quest of making his points, finding laughs when black women and men pretend to be slaves. This is not for those who can’t tune in to such setups without being offended. “Slave Play,” candidly directed by Robert O’Hara, is uninhibitedly free-wheeling.
There is a heavily mirrored set (scenic design by Clint Ramos), with mirrored doors that open for the cast members to enter and exit through, and the set passes for a plantation. Initially we see three often-hilarious but also biting dramatizations. There is a white overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan ) with a whip dominating a black woman slave (Joaquina Kalukango) whom he taunts, although he is uncomfortable in his duty. The woman has perfected a frenetic and funny movement of her derriere, and there is a sexual air to the situation as she is demeaned by being ordered to eat a cantaloupe comically substituted for watermelon off the supposedly clean floor.
In another scene, the play's funniest, the repressed but horny white mistress of the plantation, hilariously performed by Annie McNamara, takes advantage of her husband’s absence to seduce in her bedroom a black house servant (Sullivan Jones), who plays the fiddle and makes up what is supposed to sound like slave music at her demand. Then she lets her inhibitions run free and carries out a fantasy of getting inside him with a large black dildo she says has been passed down to her by her mother.
A third couple, a black field slave (Ato Blankson-Wood) bosses a white servant (James Cusati-Moyer), and the situation turns into a homosexual escapade, with the white man on his knees licking the other’s boots that are symbolic of what he would be licking instead.
Then comes the moment of truth. We learn that the three couples are real interracial couples who have been acting out scenes as part of a group therapy session run by two lesbian, psychologists, one white (Irene Sofia Lucio), one black (Chalia La Tour), who are having their own problems, illustrated by competitiveness and occasional nasty looks at each other. The women are over the top pouring out clichés and excess enthusiasm for their mission, obviously being satirized by the author in a take on absurd therapeutic ideas.
The explosions that occur in real life to the three in-therapy couples as a result of what they felt going through their concocted sexual scenes make clear that feelings based on race inequality have been suppressed and are seething within their relationships. After a while the session gets to seem overlong, and although there is humor in the anger that bursts forth, there is also some tedium that sets in.
Where does all of this go? We get a dose of ultra-candid post-therapy depiction and are left to contemplate the meaning of it all. On reflection, I don’t think the play is a deep as it tries to be, but the main points about still-simmering racial animosity are hammered home in an unusual way by the witty author abetted by a first-rate, versatile and very brave cast. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-947-8844. Reviewed October 10, 2019.