Audiences have heard a lot about Slave Play.

The Jeremy O. Harris drama, which premiered on Broadway in 2019, has elicited a stream of polarizing reactions, from effusive praise (it received a record 12 Tony nominations, but won no awards) to outright calls to shut it down for its explicit content. Even its Los Angeles debut at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum did not come without controversy, as Harris temporarily pulled the play from the season in protest of the dearth of female playwrights in CTG's lineup.

But when one is finally sitting in the audience, watching this revelatory, potentially game-changing piece of theater transpire, none of that seems to matter. An irony considering the play is so vociferously engaged in questions of context and history.

Slave Play
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in 'Slave Play'
| Credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

It opens on a distinctly American setting, the McGregor plantation, where three narratives of sexual congress unfold. Kaneisha (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) enters a dance of brutality and power with overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), lady of the house Alana (Elizabeth Stahlmann) dominates liveried Phillip (Jonathan Higginbotham), and Gary (Jakeem Dante Powell) relishes turning the tables on indentured servant Dustin (Devin Kawaoka).

The vignettes are uncomfortable in the extreme, sexually explicit and pointed in the ways they expose themes of consent, race, oppression, and dominance. They go on just long enough that one might wonder what exactly the point is — then the play rips the rug out from under its audience, revealing that these scenes are sessions between interracial couples undergoing "antebellum sexual performance therapy." It is no longer a Slave Play strictly in the sense of being a play about slavery, but rather the double meaning of "play," bringing sexual fantasy and bedroom play into the conversation.

What follows is an unflinching, unapologetic examination of generational trauma, the lingering effects of slavery, interracial power dynamics, and white supremacy. All this is underpinned by remarkable performances from the entire ensemble, the majority of whom have traveled with the show from Broadway. Robert O'Hara's astute direction leads to a crisp economy of movement and a pointed blocking that underlines who feels empowered to take up space and who must stake their claim more forcefully.

Slave Play
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Jakeem Dante Powell in 'Slave Play'
| Credit: Craig Schwartz

Harris and O'Hara understand the power of silence and stillness, and Crowe-Legacy, Higginbotham, and Powell embody that truth with ferocious presence. When they are each finally pushed to speak, the eruption of their anger, their frustrations, and their realization of the ways they've compartmentalized and erased parts of their identity is all the more shattering. Powell in particular is searing in his epiphany that his relationship and worth have been predicated on the ways his partner has used proximity to Blackness to his own ends.

Stahlmann and Nolan have the task of embodying the obliviousness of their whiteness, of slowly comprehending their roles in inhabiting stereotypes and enacting patterns of white supremacy. But they do so with a depth and honesty that leaves no room for even a hint of defensiveness on the part of their choices as actors, which in turn is designed to raise the hackles of white audiences whose own self-righteousness is challenged here.

Slave Play
Paul Alexander Nolan and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in 'Slave Play'
| Credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Crowe-Legacy has perhaps the most strenuous task, in making sense of Kaneisha's rape fantasy and her need to have her partner acknowledge his culpability in generational trauma. This aspect of the play has come under fire for how it addresses the violent history of rape in slavery. Kaneisha wants to be brutalized by Jim, wants him to own the role he's been given as a sadistic and violent overseer. Harris could be criticized for inserting an argument here of enslaved people welcoming rape, of quite literally "asking for it." But Crowe-Legacy's tortured and complex rendering of Kaneisha's internal struggle complicates the extremely thorny psychology of the sexual politics further, rather than flattening it into something reductive.

Anyone who follows Harris on Twitter knows he's not interested in respectability or adhering to any narrow definition of what theatrical elites and institutions believe a playwright should be. He's a firebrand. The discomfort, the outrage, is the point.

Slave Play is an encapsulation of that ethos, a recognition of the ways in which our conversations about race are often doomed to fail because of how they center white voices and erase Black ones. It spears that tendency of white wokeness to humorous effect, satirizing and starkly highlighting the ways we must understand and recognize whiteness in historical and social context to Blackness. Particularly when it comes to questions of love, sex, and power.

But more provocatively, it's willing to investigate the most taboo of subjects: sexual desire, how trauma shapes our fantasies, and the fraught nature of exploring and hearing the needs of one's partner without being subsumed by shame or guilt. We have so little accepted language for this discourse, a tendency to sweep it under the rug or refuse to grapple with it simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Fear outweighs progress.

Harris sets a match to all that with Slave Play, assisted by the effective scenic design of Clint Ramos. The action takes place on a highlighter-green stage, an astroturf effect that turns the events into something between a violent battle and a sporting affair. The back of the stage is lined with mirrors, reflecting and distorting the audience — and their theoretical complicity — throughout. In the third act, the mirrors are tilted even further to objectify and sexualize the literal and metaphorical climax of the play, making its violence and eroticism inescapable. The messaging of Ramos' set is amplified in the Mark Taper Forum, the thrust stage forcing the audience even more directly into the heart of things.

Slave Play is certainly not for everyone; it opens a can of worms of impossibly difficult questions. But the fact is, if culture won't start these conversations, won't force us to examine these issues from the relative anonymity of a dark theater, who or what will? Harris has lit the fuse, but the rest of us have to choose to weather the explosion. Grade: A

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