By Leah Greenblatt
October 07, 2019 at 02:30 PM EDT
Matthew Murphy

Broadway babies, be warned: Slave Play aims to land in a world of Lion Kings and Wickeds and Dear Evan Hansens like a bomb, and it does — a high-wire discourse on race and power and sexuality so relentlessly, sensationally provocative that it feels like showgoers shouldn’t be allowed to leave the theater without some kind of psychological debriefing, or at least a quick pat from an emotional support animal.

It opens on a nearly bare, elaborately mirrored stage, and circumstances that seem to suggest a plantation: a young black woman named Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), is sweeping and singing to herself; the white overseer she calls Massa Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) emerges to check on her work, with an unmissable bullwhip coiled at his hip. They spar about cleanliness and obedience and the difference between a watermelon and a cantaloupe (is it so hard to tell?), but something seems off. The music, for one: Rihanna’s “Work” is pulsing, distorted, in the background, twitching Keneisha’s hips in a very un-19th-century way. And Massa Jim’s accent seems to keep slipping between Deliverance and something vaguely… British?

The next scenario, too, feels a little surreal; a Southern belle in hoop skirts and sausage curls (Annie McNamara) commanding her house boy, Phillip (Sullivan Jones) to conjure some “mulatto magic” for her on his fiddle. But what she really wants is the magic in his pants, and there’s slick vinyl bondage gear under her crinoline. (Also, something in her hope chest that you’d usually need to go to the “adult toy” section of Amazon to find).

In the third section, a field slave (Ato Blankson-Wood) turns the hard-labor tables on a white indentured servant (James Cusati-Moyer), engaging in a sort of erotic back and forth over wheelbarrows and hay bales that culminates in a final, explosive moment of release.

So yes, there are whips and dildos and simulated boot fellatio; this is not the Saturday matinee, you may have heard, to see with the cousins who just came to town hoping to catch Book of Mormon. Slave’s young playwright, Jeremy O. Harris, wrote it while still a student at the Yale School of Drama, from which he received his MFA this year, and there’s a deliberate rawness to the production, from its painfully of-the-moment issues to the recurring use of “Work” as a central musical motif, and even as stage decor (the smeared-together lyrics “Nuhbodytouchmeyounuhrighteous” are laser-cut into mirrored glass over the stage).

But beneath that, Harris’s goal feels like nothing less than a brick-by-brick dismantling of the legacy of slavery: old ideas to tear apart, examine, and build again in his words — much like his subjects do once it’s revealed that the scenarios we’ve been witness to aren’t actually old-timey events but in fact something called (skip immediately to the last paragraph if you don’t want spoilers) “antebellum sexual performance therapy.” And these couples — all interracial, and all struggling with issues they can’t seem to move past — are willing to try a little radical role-playing to fix it.

As the group shares with a pair of extremely enthusiastic therapists (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio), petty grievances and real, bone-deep wounds begin to pour out. Some moments, like Blankson-Wood’s angry confrontation of his overbearing lover (who keeps insisting, against appearances and all specificity, that he himself is “not white”), feel utterly, achingly real. Others, like Philip and Alana’s internet-fetish backstory, are played more broadly for laughs, though even that discussion eventually gets to the nugget of Philip’s own hurt and rage at being perceived, in his largely white world, as some kind of shining example of post-race exceptionalism.

It’s Kalukango’s Keneisha, stewing in near-silent misery through much of the group sessions, who finally explodes, and gives the play its indelible centerpiece. Her final scenes make the political utterly personal in a way that the script — whose structure can seem less like linear storytelling than a fascinating, overstuffed smorgasboard of Big Ideas — intermittently struggles to do otherwise.

If Slave Play’s ambitions sometimes outstrip its execution, it’s still thrilling to see a piece on Broadway that is so urgently, electrically about something. Harris and director Robert O’Hara (who originated its Off Broadway run last year, as did most of the actors) are hardly operating against theater as entertainment, per se; Slave is quick-moving, clever, and consistently quotable. But it feels like a piece of lightning, too: work that aims to strike hot, illuminate and, if it has to, burn the whole thing down. B+

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