The topics of slavery and racism are difficult ones in history. We’ve seen both on film and in television. Yet there are other important factors to consider- race, the issue of identity, and the role of power relations. How does racism persist in today’s world, even after slavery has been abolished for more than a century? And is there an answer to this problem?
Such is the case for Slave Play, a new Broadway production written by Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Robert O’Hara, the play examines these factors with three particular couples. At times, it has a level of black comedy, but it also gets quite serious with regard to issues of race, sexuality, and trauma.
Act One begins with what appears to be life on a plantation in Virginia. Kaneisha is a house slave, and Jim is an overseer. Alana is the wife of the homeowner, while Philip is her mulatto servant. Dustin is an indentured white labourer, while the black Gary relishes being his supervisor. Rounding out the cast are Patricia and Teal, a lesbian couple who are studying the effects of Racialized Inhibiting Disorder.
Without giving away a certain plot twist, the second and third acts examine how trauma persists. Harris’ script shows there are similarities between slavery and current racism and how microaggressions continue to marginalize racial minorities. One major element of the play is black erasure, because the white characters struggle (and at times fail) to recognize and name their partners’ race. Jim clearly loves Kaneisha, but he feels uncomfortable with the way she looks at him and doesn’t know what to do about it. Kaneisha explains this is due to Jim’s inability to acknowledge his own whiteness and power. Special praise must be given to actress Joaquina Kalukango, who delivers a dramatic, compelling performance as Kaneisha.
Another important aspect is the interracial politics between LGBT couples. For example, Dustin and Gary live in a predominantly black community, but the former wants to move to a more gentrified neighbourhood. Their relationship is further complicated by Dustin’s identifying as non-white, which thereby erases Gary.
O’Hara’s direction gives equal weight to all three couples and two scholars. We go from domestic scenes of life in the antebellum South to a deeper examination of interracial relationships. Appropriately enough, the Rhianna song “Work” is played at intervals in the show; the lyrics of which are about a fragile relationship. The set of Slave Play is minimal, with the backdrop being a series of mirrors reflecting the audience. By doing so, this brings to mind the use of mirrors in Cabaret. This causes us to look at reflect on ourselves and the society in which we live.
Slave Play is blunt, engaging, and reflective. Harris’s writing is spot on, witty, and deeply honest. The story makes one consider the world in which we live. It also poses the question of whether or not there is an answer to the trauma of racism. One can expect this is a play that will continue to be revived, long after it has left Broadway.