Sunday, November 25, 2018

Slave Play


Jeremy O. Harris certainly qualifies as this season’s hot young playwright. In addition to this work at New York Theatre Workshop, he has a second play, Daddy, coproduced by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre, coming up in February. He was a MacDowell Colony Fellow and has been commissioned by both Lincoln Center Theater and Playwrights Horizons. The current play has already won the 2018 Kennedy Center Rosa Parks Playwriting Award and the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Not bad for someone in his second year at Yale School of Drama. 

This is a difficult review to write because to tell you too much about the play would be to spoil much of the pleasurable surprise I hope you will experience seeing it. I can say that it involves interracial sex and is not just sexy, but also hilarious, provocative and highly theatrical. The setting is specified as MacGregor Plantation in Virginia. The play has three acts performed without a break. In the long first act, we meet Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan; Escape to Margaritaville), a white tenant farmer on the plantation, and Kaneisha (Teyonah Parris; A Free Man of Color), the slave who is cleaning his shack. Next we meet Alana (Annie McNamara; The Sound and the Fury), the bored mistress, and Phillip (Sullivan Jones; The Winning Side), the studly mulatto house-servant/musician. Finally there are Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood; Lysistrata Jones), a black overseer, and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer; Fire and Air), a white indentured servant whose work Gary is supervising. Things happen. After an abrupt ending, we are in the extended second act, which has an entirely different tone and casts everything we have seen so far in a new light. This act includes two new characters, Tea (Chalia La Tour; The Danger) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio; Love and Information). The short dramatic final act combines elements of the previous two, but features only one of the couples. I realize this description does not give you much to go on, but trust me that it’s better not to know a lot in advance. The cast is uniformly strong. The scenic design by Cllint Ramos (Once on This Island, Torch Song) includes an astroturf stage backed by eight large mylar panels that reflect not only the audience but a painting of the plantation house on the auditorium’s back wall. The costumes by Dede Ayite (American Son, School Girls), especially Alana’s gown, are a treat. The lighting design by Jiyoun Chang adds a lot to the production. Director Robert O’Hara (Wild with Happy, Bella), whose direction of his own plays has not always been optimal, does a smooth job here, capturing the play’s many moods. I assure you that you won’t be bored, although I do feel that the long second act could use a trim. It’s not for those offended by nudity or sexual situations. Others should find it both entertaining and thought-provoking. Running time: two hours five minutes, no intermission.

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