It’s a complicated satirical approach, throwing a reflective mirrored light on slavery, power dynamics, sexuality, and class, trying with desperation to find the shades in between stances of racism, the power of internal music, and the ability to let it flow wild, fast and free. It’s all “work, work, work, work, work” when the glorious Teyonah Parris (Broadway’s A Free Man of Color, “If Beele Street Could Talk”) as the beautifully expressive Kaneisha finds her Dance Nation grove and allows that certain something to come over her. “Whatcha mean, Mister Jim?“, Kaneisha asks her whip-carrying master/mister/man, played with a complex and fascinating duality by Paul Alexander Nolan (Broadway’s Bright Star, Escape to Margaritaville), as we are roped, most completely, into Jeremy O. Harris’s (Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1) stunningly combustible and disturbingly erotic Slave Play at the New York Theatre Workshop. It’s provocative and uncomfortable, pushing boundaries and buttons that are hidden within every single soul in the theatre, daring us with staggering urgency to take notice and check our own prejudicial thoughts and politics. We wonder what exactly we are seeing from moment to moment. Are we to take this explanation of personal psychology seriously, forever being pushed and prodded into seeing something from a different angle? Or are we meant to laugh at the raw and ridiculous psycho-babble being spewed forth by Teá and Patricia, played with a detailed and sincere nod to processing by Chalia La Tour (‘The Good Fight‘) and Irene Sofia Lucio (Rattlestick’s Orange Julius), while cringing somewhat with each snap of the whip stinging our sensitive liberal minds?
It’s sexy, powerful, and silly, with the old Southern MacGregor Plantation displayed overhead and reflected back into our very eyes by the inventive scenic design of Clint Ramos (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), with the feverish dream-like lighting by Jiyoun Chang (NYTW’s Sojourners, Her Portmanteau), sensual and serious costumes of the present and past by Dede Aylte (Broadway’s American Son), and in the breeze of the cotton fields and the therapeutic movement designed by Byron Easley (Encores’ The Bubbly Black Girl) together with the intimacy and fight direction by Claire Warden (Nora Theatre’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses). We hear the rhythm in the ‘crack of the whip’ sound design and original music by Lindsay Jones (Public’s The Brother/Sister Plays) and experience and explore the fear and desire that is entwined in the shadow of the Master’s House. It’s a fantastical play-therapy session of processing, where there is no wrong or right in Slave Play, although there seems to be some interpersonal problems, magnificently portrayed by the whole cast, that even a little hoovering can’t quite get back into pre-Starbucks ship-shape clarity and community.
As directed with a heightened sexual arc of precision by Robert O’Hara (Mankind, Bella…), Harris attempts to rip apart history by shedding a forceful light on race, gender and sexuality in 21st century America by introducing us to a number of hotly contested and complicated couples struggling for connection across a divide. “I’m in charge, funny white man” says Gary played with a deep contradiction of love and discomfort by Ato Blankson-Wood (MCC’s Transfers) to his hot young counter part, Dustin, played to perfection by the wonderful James Cusati-Moyer (Broadway’s Six Degrees of Separation). “I’m not sure, Mistress” says the strong handsome and musical Phillip, played provocatively by the very funny Sullivan Jones (Epic’s The Winning Side) to the heated Alana, portrayed strongly by the exacting Annie McNamara (Public’s GATZ). “If I could speak for the group“, says one of the concerned as the manipulating process flies forward forgoing all scientific structure, and although at times the verbiage gets oppressive and drags on, the sensual drama and thesis of inequality gets dissected and investigated with passion and purpose. Harris wants to ask a lot of complex questions at this Slave Playcolloquium, some more pointed than others, poking at our funny bones and our deep sexual fantasies, making us wiggle in our seat because of numerous observations that cling to our skin and our seminar materials. So sign up for this sexy and dynamic experiment and become engaged in a conversation that will likely continue long after the last group member leaves the stage. You all are “making such great progress”, New York Theatre Workshop, and keep up the great work moving into the new year.