Broadway Review: “Slave Play” at the Golden Theatre (Through Sunday January 19, 2020)
Written by Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Robert O’Hara
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Slave Play,” currently running on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, reiterates the events on the fourth day of the Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy being held at MacGregor Plantation, a few miles south of Richmond, Virginia. Three couples have signed up for the workshop to engage in the “radical therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” The therapy workshop is designed and organized by Teá (an intrusive and passionate Chalia La Tour), “a mulatto who is studied in her black and her white” and Patricia (a pensive and circumscribed Irene Sofia Lucio), “a light brown woman who knows many lives” – both graduates of Smith College and Yale University and steeped in studies of anhedonia and alexithymia.
In order to fully discover why the three couples are unable to feel pleasure (anhedonia) and why they are unable to describe their own feelings (alexithymia), symptoms of what Teá and Patricia label “Racialized Inhibiting Disorder (RID),” they are required to participate in a carefully structured fantasy play that includes sexual trauma role-playing. This role-playing is designed to work through any trauma a partner “hasn’t completely worked out.”
Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), “a dark black woman unafraid of what she knows she wants” and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), “a white man and inheritor of more than he knows how to handle” engage in a role-playing between one of Master MacGregor’s overseers and a female slave under his supervision to explore issues of control. Phillip (a contemplative and sensual Sullivan Jones), “a mulatto who still has to learn his color,” and Alana (an intense and self-absorbed Alana McNamara), “a white woman who wants more than the world sees fit to give her,” engage in role-playing between Madame MacGregor and her servant to explore the causes of Phillip’s apparent erectile dysfunction. And Gary (a damaged and introspective Ato Blankson-Wood), “a dark black man whose life has been lived with the full trauma of his color,” and Dustin (an entitled and shameless James Cusati-Moyer), “a white man but the lowest type of white — dingy, an off-white,” engage in role-playing to explore Paul’s inability to reach orgasm.
This role-playing comprises the action in Act I (entitled “Work”). Initially it seems the action is taking place in antebellum Virginia; then it appears the couples are in the present and in a realm of fantasy. This gets confirmed in Act II (called “Process”), when the couples meet with Teá and Patricia (who have been observing the role-playing) to “process the emotional numbing that’s brought us all here together in this room.” It is in this somewhat overly long act that deep-seated white supremacy, shades, colors, race, and “the world’s collective imagination of life in the American South during slavery” are parsed and elucidated.
It is in Act III (“Exorcise”) that all that playwright Jeremy O. Harris has been exploring reaches its explosive and cathartic climax. Things did not go well for Kaneisha and Jim during processing: Jim stopped the role-playing sequence by failing to follow through to the end, and Kaneisha rightly feels betrayed by Jim and identifies his “shutting down” as evidence of his inability to understand “what she needs from him, and how she needs it.” She returns to their room, packs, and plans to leave early. Jim walks in on Kaneisha, and in an electrifying and disquieting scene, resumes the role-playing, continuing this time until she “calls it off” with their “safe word,” “Starbucks,” and shares with Jim, “Thank you, baby. Thank you for listening.” As she did in middle school when facing her OCD and dodging suggestions by her teacher and parents to go into therapy, Kaneisha “made sense of it herself.” Ms. Kalukango and Mr. Nolan deliver deeply emotional and exhaustingly physical performances that shatter the boundaries of conventional theatre. Their intense work in this scene makes resolution possible.
Under Robert O’Hara’s exquisite and deeply sensitive direction, the entire cast gives believable and authentic performances that challenge all the norms defining eroticism, particularly in the discussion of sexuality in “mixed” couples. Persons of color and their white (or “off-white”) partners will and must make sense of these dynamics themselves without the constraints of the “constant psychological warfare of the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist system” (as Tea or as Patricia describes it). Clint Ramos’ mirrored scenic design, enhanced by Jiyoun Chang’s subtle lighting design, draws each audience member into the action, which also subtly makes each one complicit.
“‘Slave Play’ is a radical study in American memory, the psychologies of the prized and the oppressed; the grateful and the entitled; who’s top, who’s bottom; who speaks, who can’t, and who betta listen,” wrote American poet Morgan Parker. And I would have to agree. “Slave Play” is not for the hard of heart, the hard of “hearing” or the weak in spirit. However, Mr. Harris’ play must be seen as part of the overall process of awakening, healing, and making sense of it all before it is too late.
“Slave Play” stars Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, and Paul Alexander Nolan. The cast is being understudied by Eboni Flowers, Thomas Keegan, Jakeem Dante Powell, and Elizabeth Stahlmann.
The production team includes Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Jiyoun Chang (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound design and original music), Amauta Marston-Firmino (dramaturg), Byron Easley (movement), Claire Warden (intimacy and fight director), Doug Nevin (production counsel), and Taylor Williams (casting director).
“Slave Play” runs at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street) through Sunday, January 19, 2020. For more information about the production, including the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://slaveplaybroadway.com/. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes; there is no intermission.
Header: James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in “Slave Pay.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Posted courtesy of Theatre Reviews Limited www.theatrereviews.com“