Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review of "Slave Play"

Jeremy Harris’ provocative, sometimes funny, and challenging work, Slave Play, uses the sexual difficulties of mixed race couples to explore Black identity and empowerment.  The playwright roots his examination through the lens of slavery and its historic subjugation of African-Americans.

The play pulls no punches in its first extended scene (the show runs 2+ hours with no intermission).  A section of the mirrored set, which reflects a large, white plantation manor, opens to reveal a Black female slave (Joaquina Kalukango) and her White overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan).  Their interaction, tentative at first, grows more pained and, finally, sexually charged.  As they vanish behind the highly-polished set another doorway opens and a four-poster bed is pushed on stage.  This vignette reveals the mistress of the plantation (Annie McNamara) and her educated, properly uniformed Black manservant (Sullivan Jones).  Soon, their interaction devolves into a compromising position that includes a large black dildo.  The final set involves a Black supervisor (Ato Blankson-Wood) and the indentured servant (James Cusati-Moyer) he looms over.  They taunt each other until clothes are finally torn asunder and their carnal passions overtake them.

Just when you begin to scratch your head in clueless wonderment the second scene is introduced.

[Note: The following paragraph is a spoiler alert.  You can skip to the 3rd paragraph down.]

What is now presented to the audience are three couples, one African-American, the other White, lounging on folding chairs in, what we learn, is a room set up to process the role playing we have just witnessed.  Two therapists, one Black, Tea (Chalia La Tour), the other Latino, Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), have developed, what they call, “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” as a way for mixed couples to deal with their sexual dysfunction using the brutality of slavery as a release mechanism.  The two Yale University doctoral candidates (which they mention numerous times) excitedly explain how the processing of their role playing experience will help each partner move closer together as they confront and delve into their feelings from the simulation.

What transpires are high charged monologues, recriminations, and soulful introspections by the participants - Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and her husband Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), Alana (Annie McNamara) and her spouse Phillip (Sullivan Jones), and Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer).  The third, and final, scene takes place back home in the apartment of Kaneisha and Jim.  What begins as a potential reconciliation between the two quickly devolves into a delusional and abhorrent action by Jim, which leaves their marriage in total disrepair.

Harris is focusing on significant issues in Slave Play, while also taking time to poke fun at social scientists, by dreaming up an outlandish therapy regimen and masking their efforts in psychobabble and questionable results.  He questions what is the Black identity within a mixed relationship and, in order to provide harmony, is it necessary for African-Americans to subvert their identity as they did during slavery?  And how must their White partners reassess their role and actions?  The play, though, is too heavily layered and dense with messy and jumbled connections and overwrought statements.  Director Robert O’Hara provides strong, measured guidance of the material, but the production could have benefitted from the perspective of less is more.

The cast is fully committed to their roles, which brings on uncomforting reality to the production.  Each portrayal has its own strengths and merits.  Sullivan Jones brings a nonchalant air to the role of Phillip who, after detached bantering with his spouse and others, shockingly realizes his lack of racial identity and connection to his wife.  Annie McNamara gives a nuanced performance as Alana, Phillip’s married partner.  Her nervous tics and eagerness to please tell volumes about their fragile relationship.  Ato Blankson-Wood’s portrayal of Gary is, initially, more passive then the other characters, but when he finally confronts his partner and his idiosyncratic kvetching, the actor demonstrates a fierce acrimony that finally explodes over his White soulmate’s irrational fixation.  The actor James Cusati-Moyer, who portrays Gary’s self-centered, somewhat obnoxious partner, Dustin, is superb.  He is oblivious and shallow as he baits his partner, questioning who is more Black?   

Paul Alexander Nolan’s Jim is one of the more complex characters in the production.  Trying to put himself above the fray, he shows an unsteadiness on how to lovingly proceed with the African-American wife he adores.  His misguided resolution in scene three explodes in horror and pity.  Joaquina Kalukango’s Kaneisha, the spouse of Jim, comes across as the most affected of the six participants.  She silently smolders during the therapy processing before unleashing a tirade full of angst and realization.  The two Yale therapists, Chalia La Tour as Teá and Irene Sofia Lucio, a couple themselves, are less developed then the other characters.  They serve as provocateurs and guides as the group continually processes their feelings.  Their personas do, however, mask an undercurrent of uneasiness within their bubbly facades.

Slave Play, at Broadway’s Golden Theatre through January 19, 2020.

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