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“I think it’s really important to reiterate that what we all just explored was incredibly difficult and triggering, but it was also fantasy.“
For the month of March I gave myself the stealth challenge to only read works written by women. However, a friend who reads far more than I do got in touch to tell me I must read this award-winning play by young playwright Jeremy O. Harris. He was so emphatic and scandalized that I put aside guilty pleasure Verity and inhaled this in an evening. I’d heard of it, of course. I’d read reviews, which all seemed to alternate between repulsed and rapturous. I knew the basic plot–3 interracial couples (one gay, 2 straight) go on a therapeutic retreat run by a lesbian couple. The retreat revolves around slave roleplay–not BDSM, but Kunta Kinte. I knew the play included graphic sexual content and a blunt take on interracial relationships and racial fetishism. I knew all of this but still…
. … Y’ALL. This is the most shocking thing I’ve read in a very long time. Have you ever read a whole book with your mouth hanging open the entire time because you can’t believe what you’re reading? I hope the actors in this get PAID because reading these scenes, I cannot imagine the challenge of performing this work night after night. There’s a lot of graphic simulated sex and a lot of verbal violence and racial slurs. The relationships included are very distressing even without the racial gimmick and become downright pathological once the slave-master dynamic is added. Harris tries to temper this with humor (and pop music) but I hope the jokes land harder in performance than they do on the page.
Still, I’m no Puritan and while I was shocked, I wasn’t bothered by the sexuality explored in the play. In fact, I rather appreciated the attempt at diving deeper into the psychology of interracial relationships than the usual tropes.
What did bother me is that for all its boldness, I’m not sure Slave Play is as good as it thinks it is. It ultimately seems like an attempt to justify a desire for problematic white partners, and its portrayals of therapy and attempts at psychoanalysis are so odd that they’re almost offensive. It does some interesting work with the ideas, but I can see this play disappearing into the cultural ether once a more sensitive and thorough work on the complexities of Black-White relationships, both sexual and servile, is published.(There are already a few non-fiction contenders; Woodard’s The Delectable Negro comes to mind.)
Frankly, Slave Play is disturbing and revels in it. The end scene is guaranteed to wreck your peace of mind, and while it should, I don’t think anything particularly insightful is being expressed in exchange. As a result, it’s really hard to rate this. 4 stars and a giant box of condoms to Slave Play–it gets props for its boldness but shouldn’t reproduce.
(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. As always, I need to tell you that this blog has affiliate relationships with entities such as Bookshop, and if you click through and purchase from any of the present links I’ll earn a commission. Peace! )