Jeremy O. Harris: ‘Slave Play’

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Playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Photo by Micaiah Carter

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose play “Slave Play” is at the Mark Taper Forum until March 13. The play received 12 Tony nominations, the most ever for a play. Harris also co-wrote the screenplay for the 2021 film “Zola.” Harris tells The Treatment that some of his inspiration for “Slave Play” came from two controversial films he watched as a child. He says he wants the play to make audience members feel uncomfortable and have tough conversations about race. But Harris also says going to the theater shouldn’t feel like someone is making you eat your vegetables.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest, Jeremy O. Harris is the author of one of the most acclaimed and controversial and fascinating plays of the last 10 years. The play is, of course, "Slave Play," playing now at the Mark Taper Forum.  I took some time after I first saw the show in New York, to look at the resource list. So many of the plays that you reference are by women, and they also deal with that idea of identity, which is people playing something in the middle of something happening around them. Playing with identity is so crucial to this play and clearly crucial to the way you experience theater, isn't it?

Jeremy O. Harris: Oh, absolutely. It's how I engage in theater. I had this moment the other day where someone at the Blackout night asked me, was it emotional writing it? They were like, how did you write all these characters; I could feel the emotions of every character as the act of saying the words the way I so rarely do. It's the way that she asked it that triggered this memory. I never talked about this. I was like, Oh, you know, my writing process is like half improv, right?  I used to be an actor, so I kind of act out every character when I'm writing it. She was like, no, honey, you weren't acting; you were channeling.

I started thinking about the fact that in high school when I was doing my drama school auditions, one of my auditions was the Black mother in "Doubt." I told her that story, and was like, Oh, yeah, growing up, I always liked playing the girl roles more than the boy roles in theater. And I still don't really know why that is. But those are the ones that for the most part, I felt like the language made more sense in my mouth.

KCRW: Thinking about the resource list and specifically, "We are Proud to Present a Presentation" and "Sweat," which are very much about trying to cast the audience in the emotion of the moment while being about something bigger at the same time. Those things being about the tragedy and absurdity of the Black experience that you can't just cry, or else your head explodes. You can't just laugh all the time or people think you're crazy. And that is so much a part of the way women of color as writers approach the world. 

Harris: The plays you're mentioning are actually part of my Golden Collection, which is a collection of plays I curated during 2020. There was this influx of money that we got from the publishing of my play, and I wanted to figure out a way to give back. And so I curated this list of plays, most of which never went to Broadway--"Sweat" and "For Colored Girls" were the only two that have--that were just really influential plays. And I put them in libraries across America. So now there's one in every state because there's a dearth of Black plays in all these other countries.

A hallmark of the plays that I love is this sort of fluidity of identity. My favorite play of all time is "Funnyhouse of a Negro" by Adrienne Kennedy. And that play is literally about being inside of a Black woman's mind or more specifically, a playwright's mind as she navigates the internalized anger at her family and her upbringing, this desire to be like a Victorian Queen or specifically Queen Victoria. Lumumba is in the play; Jesus Christ is in the play. Three different versions of the writer who's going through suicidal ideation is in the play. And it's one of the most interesting plays I've ever read because every person that you encounter in that play, historical and fictional, is Adrienne. And while that's true in every play that we read to some degree, it is very rarely articulated as such.

KCRW: You've got a Fassbender film on that resource list, but you've also got two films that had to be reevaluated by Black audiences in the years after, which are "Slaves" and "Mandingo." "Mandingo" is really about this kind of explosion, this fetishism, about Black skin.

Harris: This very big history in cinema, where some of our greatest performers in and out of these complicated blaxploitation heavily sexualized understandings of what it meant to have been a descendant of chattel slavery is also a really interesting thing for us to not hide away from, but actually to bring into the light and ask questions about because what does it mean that Dionne Warwick's most significant film is "Slaves?"  

Sometimes people make me feel like I'm crazy for just having been exposed to weird movies growing up, being on the Internet, and having a mom that worked three jobs, so Dionne Warwick was in a movie?? And then I find the movie on LimeWire and watch it, and then my 12 year old brain was like, What did I just watch? And what do you do almost a decade later when some of those images and ideas and questions are still in your head? I think the best answer is you end up writing a play.

KCRW: That sense of the absurd of "Funnyhouse of a Negro" becomes subtextual in movies such as "Slaves" and "Mandingo." You have people as contemporary as Dionne Warwick and Ken Norton, who can't begin to approximate a performance, so they're just there as representations literally to be fetishized by these people doing these period accents. 

Harris: One of the great performances of defiance is Butterfly McQueen in "Gone with the Wind." As a Black person who grew up in the south, I was sort of forced to watch that movie, from every angle, both as something to be adored, and something to be reviled and then something that I came to have a really complicated relationship to in my adulthood. We watched it in school; I watched it in friends' homes; I watched it in my home. The number of people who told me it was the singular greatest film achievement of all time, no question from age five to 15, it's innumerable.

Yet when I grew up and started hearing people, especially other Black people be very dismissive of the films, and specifically Black people who weren't from the south at all, be very dismissive of the film, and even dismissive of the performance, I always found myself going back to Butterfly McQueen's performance. No one even knew how to direct her. And she's actually defying every understanding we have of what it means to be a slave girl, with every gesture she makes, every twirl of the eye, every shoulder shutter. It's a clown performance more so than an "honest" performance because I think that inherently Butterfly must have known that it was ridiculous to recreate this on screen with any sense of verisimilitude because the construction she was given by these white men who were attempting to do the best they could in what version of “wokeness” they had in 1947 were still so far away from the mark of our humanity.

KCRW: I wondered if the surreality was where you started or the emotional core when you were writing the play.

Harris: The surreality is absolutely what I started with. And I think a lot of that came from the fact that I'm both a child of the '20s and a child of the '70s in every aspect of my personality and personal presentation. If you go to my Instagram, you're like, Oh, this person doesn't want to be from this decade. 

I always got annoyed when "Madmen" came out. I had white friends who were like, Oh, I love that "Madmen." I just want to live in that time, don't you? And I was like, No. I'm Black, and I'm gay. It's not super great for me to be here until the ‘70s, right? 

When I think about the work that really defines me, it's Marita Bonner and a lot of artists in the '70s, like Douglas Turner Ward and Adrienne Kennedy. When I started thinking about how I wanted to see the world, I felt like I wanted to see it the way these playwrights felt unencumbered by all of the things that encumber us from telling complicated stories now, like respectability and language that is tethered to any sort of Identitarian fight to have a foothold inside of the capitalist system. 

One of the things that makes queer work and Black work somewhat safer sometimes now than I think it was by Black artists and queer artists in the early '90s, or mid ‘70s, is that we now know that we have viability inside of the marketplace, and with viability inside the marketplace comes a necessity to be safer, and by safer, I mean palatable to people that hold the most power: straight white men. And so I wanted to make something that would not feel palatable to anyone, but actually might be a gauntlet until I then ripped apart identity politics for an hour. And so that was how I thought about the structure. I saw how uncomfortable I made one of my white male acquaintances at a party. I made this one man so uncomfortable by asking him one question about the way he had sex, that I was like, Oh, that's a whole play. And this person will not like being in my audience for it.

L-R: Paul Alexander Nolan and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in “Slave Play” playing at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum now through March 13, 2022. Photo credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

KCRW: You start this play off with the first woman who comes on stage, a woman of color, that, to me, encapsulates so much, and her opening shifts of mind may be some of the most brilliant writing I've ever seen for the stage. And it felt like somebody who had an understanding of acting, but also an understanding of being the other, and understanding of being conscious of the sexual power of that other, and a self consciousness about the way that sexual power is often misinterpreted.

Harris: So much of that writing comes from being really bad and uncomfortable with sex for a very significant part of my early sexual development. And recognizing that discomfort, or confusion, or just the sort of humor of sex, in general, is something that so many people relate to when we would discuss it over drinks or dinner, but it's so rarely represented anywhere else. Thinking about that through the lens of these slave films that I watched growing up, I was like, I think this will be the only way I could laugh at this. And it'll be a laugh of shock and embarrassment at myself, for even allowing my imagination to follow the track of this writing. And so I think that's what led my pen, then.

KCRW: That monologue is not only about so many shifts of mind, but also takes us through so many different ages of characters. It's almost like watching both a person grow up and an evolution of Black consciousness.

Harris: I just love that you recognize that what you're watching is like the evolution of Black consciousness or an attempt at it because that's the goal of the play in so many ways. Something that was very important to me, dramaturgically, was to allow these characters who, when we meet them in the second act, are incredibly quiet, these Black characters, for us to feel this weight of not only white voices from their partners, but white academia clouding the room, and making the air tighter and more claustrophobic for our audience, until we became desperate for the Black characters to, in turn, have moments of self actualization and activation on stage in front of us. Because something that you're seeing that they've all denied themselves or been denied of in some way, is Black fellowship and a true Black consciousness. And each of them are struggling for air inside of the weight of language and architecture around them, which is how I felt at Yale and how I felt at my undergraduate, DePaul, and how I felt living in New York and how I felt living in Virginia. 

I couldn't escape history and going to schools that really prided themselves on certain canonical education. I went to one of the top five theater conservatories for undergraduates. When I was in undergrad, I went to a really elite private school that started the same year that integration happened in Virginia, so that rich white kids wouldn't go to that school. And Black people didn't start getting invited to go there until they created a basketball team in the '80s. 

I wanted people to see what happens when someone has that awakening of Black consciousness in front of you, over a two hour play. That's what we witnessed with Kaneisha: this moment of both an awakening of Black consciousness and this schism that's already happened with her partner becoming even more surreal, because finally, he's attempting to do some version of listening. But the question it leads you with is: was that the right listening? Did he listen the right way? 

Basically, we leave the play with one of the questions Dustin asked us at the very beginning of Act Two. The same way that the Rosetta Stone of the entire play, is the opening monologue of Act Two, wherein Teá says to the audience, by extension, the characters in the play, what we just experienced was very triggering, right? But it was also fantasy. And fantasy is important because we can use fantasy as a material to understand things about ourselves, which is not necessarily an original thought about art, but I think something that we often forget,

KCRW: These characters all feel in some ways like archetypes shaped by theater. With Kaneisha, whose name, of course, suggests kinetic ,and her partner, who not only reminds us, if we know "Mandingo" of James Mason playing a Southerner, but also he has almost some kind of Mamet-like repetitions in his dialogue, doesn't he?

Harris: Oh, that's so funny. I, very famously, don't talk about David Mamet except to shade him.

L-R: Jonathan Higginbotham, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Jakeem Dante Powell and Devin Kawaoka in “Slave Play” playing at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum now through March 13, 2022.  Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

KCRW: Well, I'm not asking you to talk about “Race.” I'm asking you to talk about the superstructure of the characters.

Harris: I do think I am a student of poets and writers, and I think that if one looked at my bookshelf, they'd see equal parts poetry and theater, which I think is why so many of the repetitions are there, and why I get fixated on certain words. 

So many people have asked me about why I use certain slurs in the play and not other ones. And I'm like, It's a poetry thing. It's the fact that I haven't heard those syllables in that manner, and I'm thinking about one of the words he repeats a lot throughout the play.

KCRW: Yes, I know exactly what you're talking about. One of the reasons I thought you were doing this, if you're from the south, you understand that there are more epithets than just the N-word. And they all carry the same kind of weight because they're used much more casually.

Harris: One-hundred percent. In one draft of the play, it was so epithet filled with every type of Black and brown person because Elana is just such a fun character to write. I was really obsessed with the idea that there would be a character in the play who would read the entire vocabulary on how to be a racist in the south, studied it and memorized it and knew every version of it. 

KCRW: What art is supposed to do is let us experience what the person creating it is feeling at the time of the creation. There are so many striations in this sculpture that you made, and it does so many things, but it really is about certainly the power of language, which is something we get from both theater and from poetry. For me, those New Romantic poets and how what is beautiful to one person is monstrous for somebody else, those are the things that were occurring to me seeing it the second time here in Los Angeles.

Harris: Oh, what did you think of the Los Angeles staging on a very real level?

KCRW: It felt to me like the Los Angeles way to do it, which is to make the audience look at itself. 

Harris: It appeals to our vanity. I love that. 

KCRW: But also it becomes a question about forcing people to look at themselves as they're looking at theater because there's an awareness of theater as an experience for New Yorkers that Los Angelenos don't have, and I thought that set was a way of trying to sort of pull people into that and make them think they're at a theater.

Harris: I think that that was always one of the main goals of the play. When I lived in LA, I was a secret playwright, who only had friends who worked in the music industry, the film industry, and the the visual arts, and so I was the outlier. Whenever I would tell people I wrote plays, especially in LA, I would see them scowl, or turn their nose up in this weird way that's like, Oh, my God, you want to be poor and irrelevant? That's sad. 

I think that theater is the lifeblood of humanity, and I think that it might be possible for someone to not make something that millions of people see at once, but maybe millions people experience over time, which is really, really important to me. In the words of my friend, Jordan Tannahill, who's one of my favorite writers, [some people] looked at the act of visiting the theater as a chore, akin to like eating your vegetables or cleaning out your refrigerator. Something that people would articulate, Oh, I haven't seen theater in so long, but I should, shouldn't I?  Instead of like something that you just do for pleasure, like play a video game. And so I said, when I made theater, I wanted to make theater that would invite in audiences who felt like theater was not for them, that really articulated the fact that theater can be something that is more interesting or as interesting as whatever you're watching on HBO on a Monday night. I wanted to pull people away from a "Love is Blind" marathon into the theater.

KCRW: The entirety of the play is about holding many ideas in your head at once, which people are not used to doing when it comes to conversations or dramatizations about race.

Harris: They are absolutely not. I think people are used to having very staid conversations about race, or conversations about race that feel like doing your chores. And I don't know that I ever wanted "Slave Play" to feel like a conversation about race that felt like doing your chores.



Rebecca Mooney