How Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play shook Broadway's status quo
No Broadway debut this year was as thrilling as that of Jeremy O. Harris, the young playwright behind the season’s most talked-about, thought-provoking new work. Harris began writing Slave Play — an electric piece about the intersections of race, sexuality, and power examined through three interracial couples — while still in grad school, and in two years it’s blazed a dizzying trajectory from the Yale School of Drama to New York Theatre Workshop and now to the Golden Theatre, where it opened in October.
Between its rave reviews (among them, it made our list of the best shows of the year), Slave Play has also incited passionate responses from audience members. But Harris doesn’t mind if people call his play controversial — so long as they don’t dismiss it. Before 2019 entered the holidays home stretch, Harris spoke to EW about the play’s journey to Broadway and how people have reacted to it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How have you been feeling since the show opened on Broadway?
JEREMY O. HARRIS: It still all feels so deeply surreal. It’s not lost on me, the opportunity that I have to do the show … how insane it is that a black play is on Broadway at all, let alone a black play by a 30-year-old gay man. It’s really been a lot to take in. I was sort of like a horror to my mom on opening night just because I still didn’t want anyone to be excited for me. So as much of a gift as it has been, it’s also been sort of a lot to take — not to mention the fact that it’s a play called Slave Play, that’s processing chattel slavery and its effect on the psyches and bodies of all Americans, and it’s being billed across the street from like, Ain’t Too Proud.
You’ve now done three different stagings of Slave Play, and had three rounds of reception to it. How has this one compared to the previous two?
The lead-up to the Yale production was probably the most fraught of the three, because that was where I discovered that there was possibly a generational divide of understanding of how the play functions. Then it premiered, and we had a line down the block at school. At New York Theatre Workshop, the premiere was fraught in the sense that there was so much writing about me that had come out right before the play happened—and suddenly everyone’s sort of like, what is this play, who even is this kid, where did he come from, why is he writing this weird f—ed up play? So that was also a weird opening to enter into. And what’s been really exciting about this time, with Broadway, is that a lot of the things that made the other two moments more fraught seem to have been alleviated, or at least shifted. I think that people are able to find their way into the play’s interrogations with more generosity now, and more understanding, and maybe it’s just because they’ve had a year to sit with the idea of this play existing in a public space, which was different than last year where it just came out of nowhere.
When the show played Off Broadway there was some backlash, but a lot of it came from people who probably hadn’t seen it.
I think that the Twitter backlash came from people who hadn’t seen it. But the thing that people don’t talk about is that a lot of black theatre makers really didn’t like the play Off Broadway. And it took some time for people to come to find why the play functioned the way it did, it took a lot of people a few seconds. And I think that a lot of that came from seeing it on Broadway. A lot of those people were invited back for the Black Out night [on Broadway] and I think watching it function inside of a theatrical space that was full of black people alleviated some sense that this young black theatre artist had written this incendiary piece to titillate white audiences and liberal minds and as a sort of disavowal of black theatrical tradition. And I think being able to see it there made a lot of people in the black theater community here realize, “Oh, wow, maybe this does function for us,” and in fact, it did. Because we just had the most riotous night in the theater that I’ve ever experienced, at least.
I wanted to ask what that night was like, experiencing the play with that audience.
I think that’s the closest to a catharsis I’ve had in this process. Being able to witness that play in a room full of people, many of whom I’d never seen come to a Broadway show, and ones that I know for a fact have never seen that many black people in every corner of the theater as we saw that night, and hearing the way that they owned the play, owned the space, it felt like some coup d’état had happened. It felt like I got to get to see what the future of what a night on Broadway could look like.
You did this interview with Seth Meyers where you got him to buy random people tickets to Slave Play, but in the conversation leading up to that you made some great points about who gets access to Broadway shows and how that needs to change. Can you explain why that’s important to you?
I think that especially in a moment when a lot of the most celebrated work that is happening in New York right now is about people who are from oppressed identity groups, there’s nothing more imperative than making sure that the people we are positioning in the best way to be able to see these shows are those people. That, for me, is the height of my passion, and my greatest goal right now. I feel so lucky that I have a collective of producers and co-producers and individuals who are championing my play, that are saying, this is a priority for you and this is a priority for us. There has to be a real reckoning in our community wherein we start interrogating that, especially if they’re going to keep putting people like me, people like [What the Constitution Means to Me‘s] Heidi Schreck, people like [The Inheritance’s] Matthew Lopez, in the front of the charge of whose stories are necessary for people to talk about and see because if the only people who are able to see those things are the same people whose pockets are full because of the oppression of the people those stories are being told about, then we got it wrong.
Do you think opinions are shifting about what we would consider a Broadway play and the kinds of stories that audiences will buy tickets to?
I definitely think it is. I think that we see that happen all the time with Broadway, slowly but surely. I think what’s happening over the last few seasons with straight plays is that we’re starting to see this yearning, culturally, for more daring, exciting, exhilarating work on Broadway stages. And I think that the more we push forward in that, the more audiences will see and then at some point people are going to get bored with that and they’re going to want something else. But I think that for the next couple of seasons, we’re going to see a lot of really exciting and different plays, because even a decade ago it would’ve been insane that there would be this many jukebox musicals on Broadway. But there was one and then there was another and then there was another that a lot of people began to think that what makes a good musical on Broadway is either a star or a catalog. And I think that that’s about to change too, I think pretty soon the musicals that we see on Broadway are going to start to be more internal, more complex, more musically daring. I’m so excited about Six coming to Broadway this season — that musical is literally just pop music. And I think that obviously is showing that the seed that Hamilton planted is flowering, the music that people are listening to on the radio is now seeming more legitimate to make a facsimile of inside a theatrical landscape then the songs that their parents listen to on the radio.
Some critics have said Slave Play is designed to make you uncomfortable, or that it’s provocative, or controversial. Do you take issue with those characterizations?
I take issue with very few things. What I take issue with it is when people dismiss the play or pretend as though the ideas inside of the play lack depth. But one of the things that makes me upset is that I think that there has been a discourse about white discomfort that makes the play some instrument for white enlightenment, but the play wasn’t intended to be and definitely doesn’t have to serve as that. You can use anything as an instrument for whatever you need, right? But the play I wrote isn’t necessarily made for white people to feel like they know something more about themselves. It was made for an audience, a collective audience, an audience of Americans, to witness three black individuals self-actualize on stage and in real time. That’s the function of the play. So the dramatic action is around what self-actualizing costs, and what self-actualizing looks like inside of a history. And I think that that’s been a really interesting thing that I think gets missed in the discourse around discomfort. Because the discomfort of self-actualization is the discomfort that’s felt by every single person that witnesses it.
Do you hear a lot from people who have seen the show, and what do they tell you?
The thing that I hear more often than anything else is that like, I haven’t stopped thinking about this play since I saw it. A crazy thing happened where a woman told me she’s in an interracial marriage and she and her partner saw the play and immediately got into marriage therapy. She was like, you articulated something in your play that had gone unarticulated, and I’ve been in a relationship for a decade. And I’m seeing young kids of color being like, thank you for finally giving me the language to say the things that I’ve been trying to say for years. I think that’s the most amazing thing. That and the fact that so many people go out with their parents afterwards and say they have the longest conversation they’ve had or days-long conversations about the play. The fact is that ideas in the play don’t stop when they leave the threshold of the Golden Theatre is the thing I consistently hear about it.
Slave Play is playing at the Golden Theatre through Jan. 19.
This interview has been condensed and edited.