Sunday, October 27, 2019

Slave Play - An Attempt At Understanding

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One of the most important aspects in a committed relationship is one partner’s willingness to help satisfy the emotional needs of the other. Even if those needs don't necessarily align with their own. This message is at the heart of Jeremy O. Harris' penetrating, messy and brilliant work, Slave Play. The show transferring to Broadway’s Golden Theatre following an acclaimed run at New York Theatre Workshop last season. At times hard to watch, the piece looks at the issue of racism and relationships, while showing how much, and how little has changed in the U.S. since the days of slavery.

Act one of this intermissionless work opens at the MacGregor Plantation in the Antebellum South. Those at the Plantation include slaves, overseers, indentured servants and the sexually frustrated lady of the house. The overall grimness of the situation offset by several all-too familiar stereotypes. Think "Gone with the Wind" meets "Roots", with a bit of "The Carol Burnett Show" thrown in. Also quiet telling are the various hierarchical actions observed among the aforementioned groups.

Act two shifts the action to the present day where several interracial couples - all of whom see themselves at different points on the racial spectrum - are participating in an unusual therapy session. "Spectrum" being a deliberate world choice by this reviewer, as not all of the characters define themselves as simply “black” or white”, but instead being somewhere in-between. Explaining any more would give away too much of the story. However, suffice it to say there are some parts of the play that may make one rather uncomfortable - either due to what you are seeing or how you find yourself reacting to what is taking place on stage.

         Annie McNamara and Sullivan Jones (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Slave Play starts by saying "racism exists, but the way people are affected by it, and how they perceive it in others, often depends on how they were raised". Many factors thus contributing to shape the characters' different viewpoints. From attending a privileged school, to taking a trip to a plantation as a child, or having no direct cultural connection at all because you spent your formative years in a different country. The question then becoming whether it's possible to move beyond certain long-held mindsets; and through that movement, start to work towards a better understanding of issues people have grappled with for decades. Harris' script and Robert O'Hara's  direction delivering these ideas through the use of shock, grim reality, and humor. James Cusati-Moyer doing an especially nice job in the latter context with a turn as a totally self-absorbed actor.

The entire cast is excellent, though most of them function more as stand-ins for a particular point of view, rather than anything really three-dimensional. Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan are the two notable exceptions, as their characters make their case to each other - and the audience. Particularly amusing are Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio as the therapists who run the session. Two people who, while they have clearly read all the requisite materials for their rather novel approach to the issue of sexual dysfunction when it comes to race, ultimately fall short on just about every level; both personally and professionally. They also tend to favor the use of multi-syllabic words when something simpler will do just as well. There's also more than a bit of irony present, it taking the one character most opposed to the therapy process in the first place to get to the heart of the matter; while everyone else is more often than not, just dancing around the truth.

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan (photo by Matthew Murphy)

O'Hara nicely juggles the different styles and pacing of the various scenes. Though the story starts to get bogged down in the group discussion, and an excise of about 10 minutes here would help to make things a bit clearer. Conversely, an intermission between the first and second acts would certainly not have destroyed the flow of the story, and probably made it even more of an abrupt change for the audience. The only thing that didn't ring true in the play was the sudden halting of all of the different therapy sessions, when only one was deliberately ended prematurely.

Clint Ramos' sets - with a liberal use of mirrors - works especially well. Jiyoun Chang's lighting nicely runs the gamut from simple and stark during the therapy discussion, to subdued and shaded for the more intimate moments. Special mention must also go to Bryon Easley's use of movement, and the work of intimacy and fight director Claire Warden. Their efforts helping to make the different sequences crackle with tension and passion throughout.

Slave Play doesn't so much as grab the audience by the throat as open an intriguing window into a situation most people would rather not discuss. One seductive enough to draw the audience into the story before they know what's happening. It's also a play that strikes very close to home, no matter where one sees themselves on either the racial, or the human spectrum. 

Featuring: Ato Blankson-Wood (Gary), James Cusati-Moyer (Dustin), Sullivan Jones (Phillip), Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha), Chalia La Tour (Teá), Irene Sofia Lucio (Patricia), Annie McNamara (Alana), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jim)

Slave Play

by Jeremy O. Harris

Scenic Design: Clint Ramos
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design: Jiyoun Chang
Sound Design & Original Music: Lindsay Jones
Hair & Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Movement: Bryan Easley
Intimacy & Fight Director: Claire Warden
Dramaturg: Amauta Marston-Firmino
Advertising: RPM
Press Representation: O&M
Social Media: Marathon Digital
Public Relations & Strategic Marketing: The Chamber Group
Casting Director: Taylor Williams
Production Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam
Dialect Coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser
Production Counsel: Nevin Law Group
Production Management: Juniper Street Productions
Company Manager: Brian Tucker
General Management: Foresight Theatrical/Mark Shacket

Directed by Robert O'Hara

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
Tickets: 800-447-7400, or
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes no intermission
Closes: January 19, 2020

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