Arts

Jeremy O. Harris on the Success of ‘Slave Play’—and Why He Doesn’t ‘Trust’ Broadway on Race

Date:
September 18, 2019

Slave Play’ playwright Jeremy O. Harris talks candidly to Tim Teeman about race, racism on Broadway, how double-edged success can feel—and what could tempt him back to acting.

Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright of Slave Play, presently Broadway’s hottest ticket, was holding a Helmut Lang suit bag. It was the Saturday of New York Fashion Week, and inside the bag was his outfit for the Lang show, happening later that afternoon.

The handsome, multi award-winning playwright and actor met me in the lobby of his grand Lower East Side apartment building wearing a beautiful navy Thom Browne outfit (long jacket and shorts) and showed me (briefly) inside his new apartment, which is big and airy, and has a study where he will write. Harris, 30, apologized unnecessarily for his gravelly voice: “My voice sounds like I’m in pain. Too much Fashion Week smoking, I’m mortified.”

His upstairs neighbor, he said, was Stephen Karam, playwright of The Humans, who asked him by text not to mention the actual name of the building. His phone pinged: “Oh cool, a friend might drop by to say hi.” He multi-tasked checking messages, speaking to me, and eating lunch at a nearby Greek restaurant. Life for Harris, you sense, is quite the professional and personal whirl—he also has a new boyfriend—and he’s relishing every moment. His Instagram account conveys this whirl in vivid pictures.

That week, the first preview performance of Harris’ much-praised, much buzzed-about play would take place on Broadway. Harris hoped the fashion crowd would attend the show. An after-party, organized by the designer Telfar Clemens, attracted guests including Timothée Chalamet, Lily-Rose Depp, Rose McGowan, and Hari Nef. Lucas Hedges and Gus Van Sant have been sighted in the stalls.

At another performance, Rihanna (whose “Work” plays at the opening of Slave Play) arrived late and then texted during the performance with Harris—who tweeted in Rihanna’s defense as online criticism rained down): “The patron saint of the play I wrote is literally a pop star, fashion icon, and Demi-goddess named Rihanna. When Dionysus is coming you hold the curtain.” The texting was fine by Harris, as “there’s no right or wrong way to watch the theatre.”

And so, even before its opening at the John Golden Theatre on Oct. 6 (to Jan 5, 2020), Slave Play is Broadway’s hottest ticket, with celebrity and controversy productively entwined. “Explosive, raw, and very funny”: what this critic thought of Slave Play when it was at the New York Theater Workshop is there emblazoned on its Broadway marquee. This author still won’t ruin the play’s big surprise and its many other powerfully written and acted performances. You must see it.

What Slave Play shows, in its brilliant whole, is the effects of racism and white supremacy on four sets of couples in a play that begins, seemingly, in the antebellum South. Slave Play won rave reviews (including one by me) when it played off-Broadway last winter. Harris also won the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, the Lotos Foundation Prize, the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, and the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Perhaps Tony Awards will now follow.

In the spring Harris’ play Daddy, again meditating on themes around race, sexuality, age, and exploitation—starring Alan Cumming and Ronald Peet, and featuring a rippling swimming pool—opened off-Broadway.

The success of Slave Play has made Harris a star, and he mused on the way to lunch that the experience has been “discombobulating”—some of his friends, who knew him when he was couch-surfing in Los Angeles, have not known how to relate to him, the freshly laureled Broadway playwright.

Harris himself describes the experience as “whiplash,” even if he said he has been dreaming of Slave Play for a decade. His goal as a playwright is to have an impact—so mission accomplished on that score. There had been a moment earlier this year when Harris did not know if he could write anymore, as he was trying to complete his thesis at Yale. This “block” lasted for four months, enough time to “freak” Harris out. (He has now graduated from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in playwriting.)

“Success is not what you dream,” said Harris. “Success can be the thing that can cause more depression than the basic poverty that you were in before. It may sound really insane to say, but when you have been in both places you feel it on a cellular level. Success can be insidious.”

His coping strategy has been to focus on the Slave Play cast, which is the same as it was off-Broadway except for Joaquina Kalukango entering the role of Kaneisha.

“If I had been a crazy success-monster,” said Harris, “I would have been, ‘My play is going to Broadway. Get rid of everyone. Call Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway. Lupita Nyong’o has to be the lead.’ But the play began with family, and it was important to have the family here. They’re my close friends and collaborators.” That includes the play’s dramaturg, Amauta Marston-Firmino, who is also his roommate, and “able to keep me in line.”

“I didn’t write plays to be successful,” said Harris. “I wrote plays to get a bunch of things out of my body. When you become successful, even when it causes depression, you still have the hunger, the need, to stay successful—and that can shift your priorities.”

Slave Play germinated after six years of living in Los Angeles, a time when Harris said he had described himself as a writer “before I had written anything.” He was reading a lot, imbibing influences and ideas, which eventually “exploded” on to the page when “I realized I had a lot to say about my body. When you’re a black body and queer body in L.A., there is an awful lot of othering that can happen.

“From that, Slave Play and Daddy came out in a flash. They were an amalgamation of different ideas that had been brewing in the back of my mind.” For Harris, “Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities in our country. The Mexican guys in my neighborhood (Highland Park) felt I was an extension of all the white hipsters who had moved in. ‘Here comes the black gay guy.’ Everyone is in a hyperracialized mode in L.A. and no one knows it.”

In Slave Play, the reverberations of white supremacy throughout history are vividly sketched. “I wanted everyone in the audience to recognize how close that history is to our current illness,” said Harris. “Growing up in Virginia and moving to the North, slavery has always been a fact to me. It wasn’t a history that was far away from me. Like Kaneisha in the play, I was taken to plantations all the time. It was wholly part of our childhood. It was not lost on me that it was only five generations away. I want the play to take people to a place where they have to wrestle and reckon with this history.”

As anyone who has seen Slave Play knows, it does more than just tell a simple story; it’s wholly original, fizzing with ideas and challenge. It leaves an audience exhilarated, winded, and stimulated. It is not ordinary in any way; it is a piece of theater that stays with you—and may well contribute to spearheading change on Broadway itself.

Harris is enjoying his success. “I don’t know what having my feet on the ground is like because I am a Gemini,” he said, laughing. “I’m always running, floating, suspended, even when things are not going well. The flying high doesn’t worry me, what worries me is my love of velocity—my hunger to get to other places faster.”

Slave Play had its own “stops and starts,” as Harris put it. Last December he was “pretty brazenly told” that the play was bound for Broadway. “I was like, ‘What? That’s insane.’ I got really excited.”

In Tulum for Christmas, he was reading “horrible messages” on Twitter from people criticizing the play, “and they hadn’t seen it,” while getting phone calls about how close the production was to securing the theater. But it didn’t happen—at least at that moment. “I got really upset, not because I didn’t go to Broadway, but I got upset letting myself believe I could go to Broadway.”

This initial misfire reminded Harris what he had really wanted for Slave Play in the first place—being seen by new audiences, “at a theater like the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. So, of course I’m excited about being on Broadway, but Broadway is not the be all and end all of your career. There’s so much more you can do, and actually there are a number of things about this space that make it more difficult to have the audience you want to build.”

The show doesn’t have a star, Harris said, its budget is lower than other Broadway shows, but the first time around its success was built on excellent reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations. He hopes the same groundswell will build around the Broadway production. School kids and Broadway neighbors were invited to watch the dress rehearsal, and there will also be a performance just for an audience of color.

Watching an audience, especially the various recognitions of audiences of color, respond to the play via the mirrors on the back of the stage has always been thrilling for Harris. “And I like to think I am having a telepathic conversation with other black people as they watch it,” he added.

The 6-foot-5 playwright grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, with his mom, who separated from his father when Harris was 11. She was a hairdresser and when he was young and his mom was training to be a hairdresser, she experimented on him. “I always wanted long hair like the White Power Ranger.”

Harris choked up talking about how hard his mother worked for him; she is “really over the moon” for his success now. “She was 19 when she had me. She always treated me like a grown-up, not like a kid. I gave her advice on people she dated.”

The strength of Kaneisha’s voice and presence, and the mother in Daddy, are rooted in the strength of Harris’ own mother. “It’s not hard to have a woman’s voice really clear in your head when you have sat at your mom’s foot every day for 18 years, as well as all the women in the salon where I was a fly on the wall for so long, working on the front desk, when most of the other boys were outside playing. What I picked up on most was the specific rhythms of how black women speak.”

As a little boy, Harris read a lot, he fabulated, and was very well behaved. “I had to be. It was only me and my mom. I felt a real responsibility not to muck up her life.” He was “bullied everywhere, sometimes because I was gay and also my mom didn’t let me play in the sandbox till I was 4 or 5. It made me a priss and set me apart.”

Harris has always written, and made people feel uncomfortable with his writing, he said, laughing. In fifth grade, he wrote about a violent robot. That story also included the line “You’re a real prick,” which scandalized his teachers. “My mom let me watch movies. It wasn’t a bad word.” I asked if he missed having a dad. “I’m still processing those feelings,” said Harris. “I was very fulfilled with my mom, but there were times where it was weird to have friends who had conventional nuclear families. That was the unfortunate reality.”

He made out with girls and liked girls, preferring them to boys in many ways. Will & Grace, the pop culture model of gayness of that moment people pointed toward, didn’t fit with Harris when he came out at 19. He thought he might be bisexual. He didn’t fancy conventionally cute guys but smart guys, which confused him for a long time. His mother was “lovely” when he came out.

Harris has always been hard on himself; when he did not finish college (DePaul, where he studied theater), he gave himself until the age of 30 to be successful as a writer, “or I’d go back to school and become a lawyer. And I did it.”

Harris worked in Chicago and Los Angeles as an actor, and before Slave Play and Daddy (written during a MacDowell Colony residency), Harris wrote Water Sports; or, Insignificant White Boys and Xander Xyst, Dragon 1 with musician Isabella Summers. His Instagram and Twitter accounts buzz with his strongly held views and great pictures of him sporting distinctive fashion.

In an interview with The New York Times last year, Harris said a potential theater-goer could see a picture of him wearing one of his distinctive outfits and “see a bit of themselves in a code I’m wearing. I’ve just invited someone into the theater who didn’t know that it was for them.”

Watching Kalukango as Kaneisha, going from clowning around to silence to “performing an aria,” has reminded Harris how much he loved acting.

He laughed. “I want some space to fail, so maybe I’ll do a big play and fail as an actor. ‘As we see, Jeremy O. Harris can’t act,’” he said, intoning a reviewer’s imagined words. “Yeah, I can’t do everything, and it might actually be freeing to know that I can’t.”

As we readied to leave so he could go home and change before the Helmut Lang show, Harris smiled and read an email from playwright Adrienne Kennedy, whom he has long admired and whose plays he wants to bring to Broadway. While hailing his success, she told him to “be careful” of the attention and fame he was receiving.

Harris himself is “very dubious” about all the hype around the black plays on and off Broadway, “on the heels of all the critics who said how amazing all the black work was last season. Wait a second: We have a lot of amazing writers—didn’t you know that?

“It’s not changed. I can’t trust it. I can’t trust the people who have been in power for 10, 20, 30-plus years and who have not cared about the black bodies represented as authors and creators, and not just bodies on stage. I can’t trust that they’re genuine or they care about making change.

“It’s exciting to see the changes happening not just for me but also Jackie (Sibblies Drury), Michael R. Jackson, and Aleshea (Harris), who are being written about by all these white critics. But we need a diverse set of critics across the board, a diverse board of directors for all these theaters. There were more black plays on Broadway in the 1970s than there have been this decade. That’s insane.”

Was he optimistic? Harris paused. “Caution is more necessary than optimism right now—in everything that we do.”