There are only two things the black collective needs to know about Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. The first is that all of its show dates are sold out. The second is that it has a number of rave reviews from white publications and white platforms. Both illustrate that this play cannot possibly be good for the black collective.
Though praised for its nuanced approach to the slave narrative, this play is what the black collective has seen many times before.
When interviewed about his project, Jeremey O. Harris uses the word “American” several times. Though he performatively acknowledges his blackness, it is clear that Harris seeks to occupy an American space. He acknowledges a childhood inundated with white spaces where he came into his identity via binary opposition. Slave Play, where Harris fails to centralize black characters, mirrors this identity crisis. Instead, Harris focuses on interracial relationships where the black character emerges as the binary opposite to their non-black mate. This focus exposes a detached and derogatory portrayal consistent with the playwright’s many, and conflicting selves.
Slave Play illustrates linearity between the slavery of the antebellum south and the present. The premise, however, is not where the play goes wrong. Rather, the execution marks its tragic downfall. It is impossible to separate interracial unions from the mental enslavement birthed from physical bondage; though somehow its contemporary manifestations depict this praxis as a sign of the revolution that has yet to arrive. Slave Play depicts a similar feat; it functions as a sign of revolutionary fervor but is a figment of assimilatory art. Specifically, Harris’s display of interracial unions beg the issue of consent and appear to assert a colonized desire “othered” bodies have for their master.
This contention takes form in the contemporary depiction of a white man with a black woman, where the black woman asks to be called a “nasty negress” during intercourse. The request implies that blacks look upon their past with lust; their contemporary placement allowing them to consent to what their ancestors merely had to endure to get through the day.
Consent remains a fickle topic of discussion. To this, I wish to assert that Harris oversimplifies the relationship between consent and agency.
Issues of agency remain largely unresolved by those of the black collective that have yet to emancipate their minds from the teachings of white supremacy. Thus, what I contest here is not the portrayal of black agency, but Harris’s underdeveloped and violent portrayal of said agency.
The issue with this Harris’s play is that it obscures the line of demarcation between the two with regard to the black body. Harris depicts the black woman as looking upon her own body and personhood with the gaze of a southern slavemaster and not the very descendant of this slavemaster as sharing the gaze of his forefather. This depiction is problematic because racism made it impossible for any black person to consent to relations with a white person during physical slavery. Arguably, contemporary manifestations reflect a similar duress. However, Harris represents said duress as consent. This portrayal assigns accountability to black agency an accountability that Harris does not extend to his white characters. This portrayal affords comfort to his white audience.
This violent revisionist history is to the benefit of the ever-present oppressor seeking to gain symbolic profit for a perpetuating the myth that slavery was “not so bad after all”.
For this reason, Harris’s alignment with an enslaved woman twerking to Rihanna is not anachronistic as delineated by several reviews. Black women in culture maintain identical placement to their ancestors displaced on plantations. The issue here is that Harris encourages his viewers to laugh at the lie of progress.
What is also ignored here is that the entire play is a twerk for the white gaze. Harris, checking all the boxes of twenty-first-century diversity, is a tool of his master seduced to think that this play is a masterpiece and not a public lynching. Harris’s mutilated psyche is what the play essentially displays- a display that allows a predominately white audience to bask in a gruesome depiction of their abducted power. So while many viewers note that white discomfort lies at the core of the play’s production music does not compose the soundtrack of the play, but the sound of a fading heartbeat.
Harris’s play functions in a new wave of art by black people that appears to confront issues it distastefully circumvents. These projects, which terrorize the black narrative with distorted truths, hold hands with one another in their commitment to caricaturing the black narrative for white entertainment. Our experience is not entertainment, yet as long as our skin folk continues to act like Jeremy O. Harris, our bodies will continue to be for sale.
Nevertheless, the art is not in the play or even the actors. The art is the “artful” depiction of empathy in Slave Play’s production and reception. So while I do not discourage anyone from signing the petition to end this play, I moreso underscore the query as to why we expect anything different from our oppressors?
So rather than encouraging the “anti” attitude, I encourage those of the black community to seek black productions for and by us. Most importantly, I encourage those of the black collective to write and produce the next pages of our narrative.
Harris’s attempt to portray the black narrative delineates potential as merely unwielded power. Harris is a beautiful black man, whose potential is thwarted in an abducted identity projected as a nuanced blackness. Harris is a man traumatized by white supremacy, the very forces that convince him that his work is genius. If anything, this play falsely portrays white supremacy as genius as this play conveys a portrait of white power painted from four hundred years of trauma labeled art.
Black Power ❤