In Jeremy O. Harris’s provocative Slave Play (the complete text of which is published in our July/August 2019 print edition, and which is slated for a Broadway transfer this fall), the MacGregor plantation becomes a site for three couples to work through, process, and exorcise the historical and emotional traumas of the past and their presents. This approach not only fails to heal their rifts, it exposes fresh layers of personal conflict, though some understandings are ultimately reached. Harris—whose play “Daddy” premiered in New York just months after Slave Play’s debut at New York Theatre Workshop—spoke with Tonya Pinkins, the Tony-winning star of Caroline, or Change, about the play and about the intense controversy it stirred. (Caution: There may be spoilers ahead if you haven’t read or seen the play.)
TONYA PINKINS: Can you tell me about the joke that set this play in motion?
JEREMY O. HARRIS: So I was at a party with my friends, and this very liberal man was talking about the pleasure he was getting from a woman who demanded the roughest sex he’d ever engaged in. Everyone was just talking about it casually, and I was like: This is so weird. I was like, “I want to play this thought experiment with you. You identify as a male feminist, right?” And he was like, “Yes.” And I was like, “Great. Now if she was Black, would you feel as comfortable telling all of us about this in this way?” And the entire energy in the room changed immediately and he was like, “Uh…” And I was like, “What if she asked you to call her the N-word? Would you still tell us about that?” And he was like, “Uh…uh…” And everyone was like, “Well, that’s different.” And I said, “How? Is consent different when that consent intersects with the politics you perform in life? Because the consent to do this rough sex is also in opposition to the politics you perform in life, and yet that’s allowed for a sort of casual, drunken, discursive dissection.” That’s what started the thing.
That’s a Tonya Pinkins exclusive! No one else has got it out of me.
I love it! So you were intrigued by an energy change in the room and you decided to explore it as a writer.
Yes. Because there was only one other person of color in this conversation, and we were laughing at the discomfort that all the white people had at what for us was a very casual question. I was like: This is theatre. This is what theatre should do: Untangle responses like this. So that started it.
When I came to the show, I’d heard many things about it—mixed things. But one thing I heard that set me up to experience it in a different way was that I was told it was not about slavery. So when I came in and I saw the scenario, I knew that we were not watching a satire of a real event. That’s the way I entered the play. Did you have any say or feeling about how you wanted the audience to enter the play?
I didn’t want anyone to know anything about it. I feel as though I’ve been asked to enter into a lot of experiences and have been told too much about them, you know? I feel like we live in a time that robs theatre of its chance to actually do that thing that happens at a party where someone says something that changes the energy in the room immediately, right? If everyone already knew that I was going to say that to the person I said it to in that moment, it wouldn’t have landed the same way, because everyone would have been prepared. And I think that not having preparation is a good thing for the theatrical moment. These new demands we have on the way we talk about a play before we see it, where people are like, “I should have known that before I saw it,” are really complicated for me, because that robs me personally of the thing I like most in theatre, which is why I don’t tend to read reviews until I see a play.
Debbie tucker green, who just did a play in London, allowed no press about it at all.
Oh, that’s amazing!
She wanted people to just come in; there was no pre-sentence, nothing. It was just: You’re coming to see a play by debbie tucker green.
I wonder if that’s also something that Black artists might be feeling more often now—that we have to explain so much about ourselves. Like, why don’t you experience the world with the same sort of discomfort of not knowing how the world will respond to you that we do? Does that make sense?
Absolutely. When I saw the play I wanted to write an essay called “White Supremacy 101.”
Why was that?
I felt that the play captured a very specific dynamic of what supremacy is. Because you had white people and Black people, it was white supremacy. Look, we’re going to go into some BDSM talk now: The dominant person in a BDSM scenario is actually the sub. The sub has all the control. The sub has the ability to say “more” or “less” or “stop.” And in a supremacist relationship, the supremacist wants to have the agency to decide when they’re sub and when they’re dom, and the other party doesn’t get to choose at all; they must just respond to what the other person is doing. So in that sense, the supremacist is always a sub pretending to be a dominant, but always requiring the other person to meet their needs, whether it’s the need to look up to me as if I’m the person in control, or the need to console and guide me. I felt that the play really captured that.
Thank you. That rocks me in my stomach, because I felt like that was a major conversation that was being missed. People think we’re in a really sex-positive moment right now, and yet we 100 percent are not. A lot of the response to the play, good or bad, seemed to immediately delete the sexual dynamics from the discourse outside of either saying it was “provocative” or “salacious.” No one talked about the fact that sexual dynamics can actually be really illuminating about dynamics that we have all the time, you know?
Also, this shouldn’t be that provocative to an audience who all have incognito windows up on their phone at different hours of the day. If you look at Pornhub’s demographics in New York, one of the most popular porn categories is “ebony” porn. And porn about sexual violence is really popular. So if people are allowing that to exist in their private fantasy life, why is it so weird that someone would put that in a theatre and have you process that communally?
Well, that’s the American Puritanism. So let’s talk about the sex.
Yeah! Let’s do it!
I felt like the character Kaneisha was living my life. You have these white men who run the world, but when they come home, they want someone to run them, boss them around. She was saying, “No, I actually want you to sub me. I need you to do this to me.” What made him supremacist was that he could not even, for her sexual pleasure, do that thing she asked of him because it messed with his sense of who he was. Is that true? Is that what you wrote?
I think that’s at the core of all three couples: the inability to listen to a Black person. I grew up as one of the only Black kids at the school I went to, and then I went to a theatre conservatory where I was one of the four Black men that they let into a 52-person class, at a school where Black students every year for as long as Black students have been going to DePaul University had been asking to do more work that looked like them, and every year they weren’t listened to. So I think that part of the energy of this play was looking at something like BDSM dynamics as not even liberatory but just illuminating about the dynamic that I felt I’d seen in my life from every type of white person I interacted with, and dynamics I’ve seen in other people’s lives consistently. Because as anyone who is at all familiar with how any type of BDSM work knows, listening is the No. 1 thing. You have to be listening or you won’t hear the safe word. So I wanted to put listening at the core of the dramaturgy of this play.
Right, and that’s what I saw. The dom is the servant, and the dom must listen, look, see, and do whatever the sub requires. The white people in this play were not very good doms.
No, they’re not.
Even though in the world they are doms. They are the doms in the world; they could not dom in their relationship.
Exactly. Or, if they do listen, like Alana, they listen wrong, you know? They’re listening to the wrong cues, which also informs another type of macro- and microaggression to the Black body in our country, right? And that entanglement is something I think, in a sort of post-Obama liberal space, a lot of people thought we had escaped. We thought, “Oh, now we listen to Black people. We had to listen to one for eight years as president.” And I was seeing that their ability to listen to the leader of our country wrong for eight years was another really great example of the need for white people to always dom every situation they’re ever in.
So I need to ask you this. A lot of Black women felt really, really hurt by this place. Has any Black woman expressed to you what hurt them about seeing Kaneisha in this situation? And what is your response?
I heard disparate things, and it was really difficult to navigate how one responds to a work of the imagination, and to its ability to hurt, when there are other people who said that it had healed them in some way or made them feel something they felt they had never had an ability to feel publicly. When we did the show at Yale the first thing I said was that we couldn’t do the show unless we got an intimacy director, a female intimacy director. And my director and I, with the help of the administration, got Claire Warren and Alicia Rodis to come to the Yale School of Drama to make sure that everyone was taken care of. That’s an action the school hadn’t done professionally before, to teach how one builds sex scenes like the ones in Slave Play, and to do them with care for the psychologies of the people who are performing them. Another thing I said at New York Theatre Workshop was, “I would really like to have some facilitated talkbacks afterward so people can process however they’re feeling about the play.” Because we couldn’t have a talkback every night, we decided to have two facilitators come in every night. We put up trigger warnings as well.
But the two intimacy directors you brought in are white women, so that’s a challenge for Black women to once again have their behavior, their feelings, be policed by the person who is the oppressor.
100 percent. Intimacy direction is so new that there are only a certain amount of people who are trained to do it, but one thing they did is that one of the assistants inside their company who is working to become the next Alicia and Claire is a Black woman, Teniece Divya Johnson, and she was an assistant on both productions, and so there was care and rigor around trying to position Black women in and around that space of how we staged the sex.
The other piece is that Kaneisha has the most profound monologue about whiteness: She deconstructs whiteness, she deconstructs the therapy, and then she’s positioned as the protagonist by opening and closing the play. But I think the end for her feels like a settling.
In my mind, she settled for something less than she was worthy of.
I hate flattening out people’s understanding of the ending by telling them what I think, because then that becomes the law of the ending. But one of the things I always say to people who interact with me about the ending, specifically the last line, is that there’s a lot of weight in a “thank you.” A “thank you” can be an invitation, a “thank you” can be a hello, a “thank you” can be a goodbye. A “thank you” can be a “thank you too”—a “thank you” is, for me, a very weighted thing.
So for you that is open-ended?
Yes. There’s a lot of complexity to that, and the stage direction that the actor has before that says, “The actress playing Kaneisha does whatever she feels is best.” It doesn’t say “Kaneisha does,” it says “the actress playing Kaneisha,” which is a moment of deep meta-theatricality to me that opens that world up to be a litany of things.
I like that. I like knowing that, because I feel like that could go a long way toward—I mean, if you’re uncomfortable from the first moment, I don’t know if you’re going to make it to the end, to have this actress give you that catharsis. But to know that the actress does have that ability to shape that is helpful.
Yeah, and that was there from the very first draft of the play.
So I have a question about the word “Negress.” Why “Negress?” To me “Negress” is a pretty word, and I think all enslaved people were niggers. Was that your choice or was that something put upon you by the institutions? Why “Negress?”
I feel like “Negress” is a more violent word because it was so specific, right? There’s a non-specificity to “nigger” which makes it, for me, a less violent word because it’s been so normalized to our ear. If you listen to pop music now, the pop music of our country is hip-hop, and different versions of “nigger” are said in every rap song, ostensibly. So for me a word like “Negress” holds this historical weight that’s so raw that we haven’t even processed what misogynoir still looks like in our country, because that’s a word that’s secreted in the back of our minds and we haven’t even dissected.
Also, in the script that I have, the end scene is a little more violent than it was in the actual production. Can you tell me why that was the case?
Well, I’m a very flowery writer, and so I write a lot of things that sometimes can happen and sometimes can’t. I have a cinematic mind, and I think that when I was thinking about this play, and also thinking about that violence, I was thinking a lot about textures as well as color. And I think that the blood that I was imagining coming out of his skin in that scene was something that was really important for the page, but I think would have become too difficult to achieve in an interesting way onstage. It would have confused the moment a different way.
So if some director decided to do that, would you be not for that?
No, I’d be totally for it. I want everyone to try everything. I’m still waiting to hear the shutters of the window fly open with the wind, things like that. We couldn’t do hay—I didn’t know that you can’t have hay in a theatre because of lice. I’m still waiting for someone to do it in a theatre where they can have hay.
For all the writers who are going to read this, what was your strategy for getting to be produced professionally while in school, in a program where you’re supposed to walk away from the professional world while you’re studying?
Well, I think it’s important in this moment right now, when other voices are being listened to in a different way—I still don’t know if we’re being listened to in the right way, but we’re being listened to in a different way—to not shy away having your work produced if you are a person of color or a woman. These moments pass so often. Like, if you look at the history of the American theatre specifically, almost every decade there’s a moment when everyone’s like, “Wait, did you know Black people write plays? Look at all these Black people we found!” And then 10 years later, none of them are there. They open the floodgates and then they shut them, and the ones who don’t drown by the time the doors open again are the only ones that are still there.
But at Yale, usually they say: “Do you want to get an education or do you want to be a professional? You gotta pick.” You don’t get to have both.
I did all the work, I think. I almost went mad doing it all and juggling it all. But there are people who have to juggle more than I ever have to juggle. My mom worked three jobs when she was my age to send me and my sister to private school, and I don’t have a kid. So if the hardest thing for me is that I have to somehow get on a Metro North at 8 a.m. to get to workshop and then get back on a Metro North to get to tech time, I think I’m fine, you know what I mean? Sitting around a table reading plays with other people or even writing plays is not even a fraction of the labor that my mom put in to make sure that I had everything I needed.
Do you think that was an exception for you, or do you think that’s going to be possible for others?
Well, there have been other playwrights from the Yale School of Drama who’ve had plays done while they were in school. Hopefully it will keep happening. The learning that I did over this year was some of the best learning about what a career in this industry might look like, and it would have been impossible had I not had these opportunities while I was in school. I think my classmate Alex Lubischer, who had a production in our second year at Roundabout, probably felt the same way about his time—that being able to navigate school and your first production sort of tethers you to a sense of reality that might not happen for a young playwright getting produced in New York for the first time, and it allows to have like a thing where like, “Well, I still have to go home and do my homework,” even if you are doing a New York Times photo shoot. That learning was so important to me, and I advocate that any program in America that has students hungry to be produced, who have the ability to get produced, that they should encourage that production, because I think the ability to juggle both of those things is not easy, but is hopefully what our lives might look like when we have families and shows.
I also think it’s good for people to recognize that a show in New York is not everything. It’s not your life. And because two shows in New York didn’t have to be my life and my life was at 120 Dwight Street in New Haven, Conn., it’s centered me and grounded me in a way that I don’t know that I would have been had I not had that.
I agree with that very, very much. I think people do sometimes forget to choose a life—and the life is what’s going to sustain you, not the career and the work. On the title page of the play it says it’s a comedy. Do you think that the only way people can hear these things about race and the dynamics between the races is if they’re couched in humor?
I think maybe the only way people can hear theory is with humor, although people who read Tom Stoppard might say differently! But I just also am someone who’s naturally always a jokester. I have a lot of very dark humor about my actual life and experiences. And that comes out in my writing in the same way it comes out in my life. So it’s a comedy not so much because I think comedies are the only way people can understand some of these things, but because for me, humor is the only way I can see my experience, because I feel like I live in an absurd comedy. Especially if you just look at how cyclical every single moment of celebration and oppression is, how often these things keep happening and everyone keeps acting surprised by them. There’s literally nothing more comedic than that. It’s literally Groundhog Day for Black people every day, you know what I mean? I was looking at a magazine article from 1967 that was like, “Guys, you won’t believe it! Black models are now the thing!” And I 100 percent read that exact same article in Vanity Fair like seven years ago. That for me is why comedy is important.
Do you feel heard now?
I almost feel heard. A lot of people are listening, and I’m still hoping that they’re listening to me when I say I want them to be listening to all of us, because I think there are a lot of people who are saying a lot of exciting things right now. I feel like the drum I beat the most is that there is no such thing as a singular Black thought leader. We are all bringing so much diverse, complicated, and exciting things to the table. And sometimes I fear that because of the way capitalism works and the way magazines work that people will only want to listen to the ones they’ve seen photographed a lot. And if you’re actually listening to what most of us are saying, most of us are saying, “Also look over here,” because we wouldn’t be writing if it wasn’t for Adrienne Kennedy or Alice Childress or Suzan-Lori Parks or Lorraine Hansberry or fucking Lynn Nottage, you know what I mean? I know for a fact I wouldn’t be writing as well as I was writing if I hadn’t been at a table with Aleshea Harris a week before I went to grad school and promising that I was going to come to New York and finally write a play that I think could match the majesty of the scrap of Is God Is that she had given me. Things like that are important for people to be listening to, and sometimes those are the things I don’t feel heard about.
You mentioned Adrienne Kennedy, and I very much felt that “Daddy” was a Funnyhouse of a Negro kind of thing. And then I went back and thought about Slave Play. Would it be accurate to say that you are working out psychological things going on in your life in the plays that you write?
Yeah. For me early on, my therapy was writing, and it was a secret therapy because I was an actor. But I also was always such a reader that the people I was drawn to the most were the people who were also trying to process their psychologies in these abstract ways or these emotionally volatile ways. When you read Funnyhouse of a Negro and you’re hearing her talk about pulling out her hair and how her hair’s falling out, and you see Jesus falling across the stage, you see someone who has a complicated internal life, who also has this weird sense of humor about how complicated their internal life is. I think that I was always drawn to those types of people. When I would sit in my therapist’s chair, my big thing when I was 12 was trying to get my therapist to laugh at really dark things that were happening in my life.
There’s a really important thing that I think, especially for Black artists, is missing in our necessity for representation. Abstraction is not the thing that we champion in our community as much. And I understand that, because abstraction makes it more difficult for people to say that they see themselves inside a story; if someone’s seeing themselves slapping themselves, you’re like, “Well, that’s not what I want to see. Who wants to see that?” I think that I want to create work for the other people who sit in their therapist’s chair and try to get them to laugh at the dark parts of being Black, or the dark parts of being queer, or the dark parts of just being tall and awkward-looking, and not just like show the good parts of my life, or the happy parts of my life, or the mundane parts of my life. I’m not as interested in that right now. Maybe I will be someday.
James Baldwin said that the American is “the most uneducated person in the world,” and “that is because education requires you to be able to think. You have to teach someone to think, and in order to think, you have to be able to think about everything. And Americans are not allowed to think about what they did to the indigenous people, or what they did to the African people.” I’m specifically asking you about this in terms of Black outrage with the play. Are we as Black people not able to actually think about sexuality that was abusive or coercive, because that makes us complicit in it in our history?
I don’t know that it was about that so much. For me the outrage was really interesting and informative about the new landscape we’re in culturally, where if a thing can become a meme, you don’t have to engage with it, but you do get to respond to it. And there’s something really exciting about the fact that a play engendered a lot of big responses and some of the responses to that engendered thinking or thoughts. The thing I’m excited about is, if this play has another life, what type of thoughts can happen now that the memes have died down?
Because I think that in our country, the thing that people that have to process the most are Black people. That’s one of the reasons why Black Twitter is so attracted to memes, because memes distill complex thoughts into a thing you can respond to immediately, and I think the complex thought about what I was doing is, “Who does this boy think he is playing with our history in front of white people?” And I think that was a really good question for people to ask me and for me to have to think about. My response is: I think I’m Jeremy O. Harris, and I think that what’s important for me, Jeremy O. Harris, is to have a conversation in my place of work, right? And my place of work in New York inside of a history of literary theatre is going to be in conversation with white people. And I’m excited about the fact that now I get to think even more completely about what the conversations I’m having in public might feel like to other people.
The biggest thing I’ve been on a real kick about and wondering is: What is it that stopped me from doing Slave Play in an urban theatre setting first? Urban theatre was the theatre I grew up with. Like, the first play that I ever saw live was a Tyler Perry play in a college theatre, and I’m sure he was making more money than I made at New York Theatre Workshop.
Well, you know, that’s some Christian theatre now!
It is Christian theatre, but my mom’s a Christian and my mom saw Slave Play and loved it. She actually felt that she wanted the third act to have more sex in it, to go into another place with the sex, which I found really curious and interesting! So an interesting thing for me to be thinking about post-Slave Play is like, what would my plays look like inside of an urban theatre space?
Here’s my last question. You’re from Virginia, right?
So Louis Hughes, who wrote Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, was quoted as saying, “Virginia was the mother of slavery.” Once the Americans won the war of independence, and the importing of Africans was banned, Virginia became this place where they would literally treat human beings as if they were animals and breed them. In fact, one woman who’d been bought for raping was sentenced to be hung because she killed someone, but because she was pregnant they kept her alive until “the issue” came out, because the issue was property. We were not children, we were not humans, Black women couldn’t be raped. You grew up in that world. How does that inform you as a writer?
I mean, it informs me implicitly. That was the other thing I had a feeling about when I was engaging with some of the responses. I was just like, “I wonder how many of these people actually grew up with a plantation down the street,” because I did. A plantation does have the historical weight, obviously, that it does, but it was also literally in my backyard. It was where we had our graduation party. So again, this is what I was saying: I had to embody a sense of humor about it. One my friend’s dad would whistle “Dixie” when he drove us in carpools!
So I wouldn’t have survived if I was traumatized by the idea of the history of chattel slavery every day of my childhood, because the history of chattel slavery was in the history around me all over. My grandparents were sharecroppers, literally living close to the tobacco field that they had picked tobacco on their entire life, until they started working at the factory. They shared stories with my mom about getting a couple of cents for picking tobacco when she was little, and it’s crazy to me, because that was in the ’70s! So being a Virginian, and a Virginian who grew up in a factory town that was highly segregated, that proudly carries its history as a Confederate state everywhere around it, is part of the reason I look at the world the way I do. Because a lot of the Black people in and around me had to look at the world differently. And we saw it clearly.
I will say this as well: One of the craziest things for me growing up and coming to the North and going to this drama school in Chicago was realizing that there was something actively different about a world that was able to live without the recognition that plantations are in the soil and right down the street. In Virginia all my friends were always like, if they said a microaggression or a macroaggression, “Yeah, I said it. Then what?” Or, “Oh my God! Well, you know how it is. My parents are racist, I’m racist.” Then I came to Chicago and people would say the most heinous things to me, or about other Black people, and I’d be like, “Yo, what’s that?” And they’d go, “What are you talking about? I’m not a racist. I can’t be a racist.” Something I figured out at 18 was that white people in the North were able to imagine that they were free from this history because they didn’t have to see it all the time, and I grew up around people who didn’t even have an interest in pretending like they didn’t know that history, because it was their dad’s history or their mom’s history or their grandparent’s history, and it was the history of the land they were living on. I think that was probably the most informative thing about me writing Slave Play.
I’m sorry, I know I said that was the last question but I have one more. I heard you say something about this once, so I want to ask: How have you digested and synthesized growing up hearing all the time, “You’re not like most Black people?”
At first I thought it was a compliment, because when you’re little, you take any sort of nicety as a compliment. The older I got, the more I saw how deeply violent that was, and how that was like a tactic, a separating tactic. It was a way of keeping me alone and keeping me there. That tactic is indebted to chattel slavery as well: The minute you can get one of them to sit in your house and be the different one is the minute you own them, you know?
I think that there were times I was owned by that idea, and I freed myself from it because around the first semester of drama school—again, I was in a drama school with 52 people, there were 4 Black boys and 4 Black girls—they told us there was going to be a cut and that usually the Black people were the first to get cut. So I had to realize I wasn’t like everyone else, that I wasn’t just going to be a Black person there, you know? And I forged a strong friendship with all the Black girls in my year, all the Black boys in my year, and we made a lot of promises to each other that we wouldn’t let them make us competitive with each other. And they’re all still my friends. One of them is still my very, very best friend, and she was a Black girl who grew up in a very different space from me, in Decatur, Ga. And my conversations with her were some of the conversations that taught me that my Black ass was just as Black as everybody else, no matter how many ends of my consonants I put on, or how straight I stood. That was special. It was important.