Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Slave Play review – Jeremy O Harris’s intense study of sex and race demands debate

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What happens in the bedroom, with all the power play between couples, is vital documentation in literature, said Doris Lessing in defence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It might be an old argument but it is an effective one in favour of Jeremy O Harris’s confrontation with race between the sheets.

The overarching idea behind his play is that historical racial violence lives on, somatically, through the generations and reveals itself in sexual dynamics. Its enactment is in its own outre league: rarely has a West End stage seen a giant black dildo employed on a Gone With the Wind-style four-poster bed, along with antebellum master-slave cosplay and a tongue-frenzy of sexualised boot licking.

The shock value is leavened by the cartoonishness for the main although the play has still gathered its detractors. Featuring three interracial couples in a novel sort of sex therapy, it led to outrage in its off-Broadway run in 2018 including a petition for closure. It comes to London garlanded to the hilt after 12 Tony award nominations, a spin-off HBO documentary and glittery audiences on Broadway (including Rihanna, whose song Work is reprised in the show).

As far as stage shocks go, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview was much more genuinely angry, Michael R Jackson’s A Strange Loop more painfully intimate. Neither is it as fantastically original as Harris’s play Daddy. But it is not as abstruse as that either, with three clear, distinct parts, and a daringly frolicking appeal.

The couples include Kaneisha (Olivia Washington, full of suppressed rage), and Jim, who is resistant to proceedings (Kit Harington, sufficiently priggish as the group’s buttoned-up Briton). There is Phillip (Aaron Heffernan) a mixed-heritage hunk enlisted to spice up the vanilla marriage of the naively Karen-esque Alana (Annie McNamara), who make the play’s most unrealistic couple. More fleshed out are the Black, middle-class Gary (Fisayo Akinade, superb) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), who looks white but identifies as “other”.

Unresolved tension … Irene Sofia Lucio, Fisayo Akinade, Chalia La Tour and James Cusati-Moyer in Slave Play. Photograph: Helen Murray

It is clear from Kaneisha’s first twerk as an indentured slave that this is a trick of a play, the title revealing its punning doubleness (which becomes clear later). Directed by Robert O’Hara at two hours straight through, the play is too clever for its own good, throwing the subject matter in the air without quite landing it, and is an intense experience, in spite of its romping humour and trotting pace.

The role play is deliberately stagey, as if to reassure us it is not real. You wait for it to reveal its intentions and then comes a therapy circle in which you wait for the characters to reveal themselves. Satire distracts from this, with counsellors Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) speaking in comic buzzwords and controlling the couples with pass-agg militancy. Therapy talk, race theory and academic-speak is rolled into the laughs and undercuts the emotional freight. As a result, there is an unresolved tension between a show that seeks to dramatise its anger and one that wants to be playfully incendiary.

But when the tone flips, in outbursts and monologues, the play takes on a sudden charge, such as when Phillip speaks about the racialised gaze of Alana’s voyeur husband and in Gary’s fight with Dustin. The final act, although dealing in fantasy, is paradoxically the most honest, dangerous and compelling of all. What Harris does especially well is to acknowledge the intricate intersections between the gender, race, class and colourism of his characters.

All of us are implicated … Aaron Heffernan and Annie McNamara in Slave Play. Photograph: Helen Murray

It feels distinctly like an American play, confronting plantation slavery, although the therapy section brings a more generalised trauma for Black characters. It feels of a specific moment, too, and seems to predict BLM anger with language used in the resurgence of the 2020 movement (from likening racism to a “virus” to the acknowledgment of white supremacy).

Clint Ramos’s set hides its shocks behind a mirrored back wall that reflects the audience (it was such a mirroring that inspired Harris to create the concept of Black Out nights) and it reminds us, lest we forget, that this is a play about the way “we” look alongside the characters on stage.

Ultimately, all of us are implicated, mirror or no mirror. I challenge anyone to leave Slave Play without needing to argue in favour or against, describe moments, express solidarity or otherwise. It might be flawed but it is charismatic, needling theatre. An event.

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