David Roberts, Chief New York Critic
“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 and Yale University and steeped deeply in studies of anhedonia and alexithymia.
In order to fully discover why the members of the six “mixed” 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-plays.” These role-plays are designed to work through any “trauma that he 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-play 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 a role-play 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 a role-play to explore Paul’s inability to reach orgasm.
These role-plays comprise the action in Act I: “Work” of “Slave Play” and are the first time the audience “sees” these characters. For a moment, it seems the action is taking place in antebellum Virginia; thereafter, it becomes clear the couples are in the present and in a realm of fantasy. This becomes clear in Act II: “Process” when the couples meet with Teá and Patricia (who have been observing the role-plays) 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 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-play 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, begins the earlier role play again, 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 share believable and authentic performances that challenge all the norms defining eroticism and the erotic, 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 outwith the constraints of the “constant psychological warfare of the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist system.” Clint Ramos’ mirrored scenic design, enhanced by Jiyoun Chang’s subtle lighting design not only include the entire audience in the action, but also draw each member into an uncomfortable place of complicity.
“‘Slave Play’ is a radical study in American memory, the psychologies of the prized & the oppressed; the grateful & the entitled; who’s top, who’s bottom; who speaks, who can’t, & who betta listen” (Morgan Parker). “Slave Play” is not for the hard of heart, the heard of “hearing,” or the weak in spirit. However, Mr. Harris’s 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 creative team for the production 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 2 hours and 10 minutes without intermission.
Photo: James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in “Slave Play.” Credit: Matthew Murphy.