With 'Slave Play,' A Young Playwright Provokes His Way To Broadway

Sep 20, 2019
Originally published on September 20, 2019 7:10 pm

Even in Times Square — crammed with tourists from around the world dodging people in superhero costumes — the playwright Jeremy O. Harris stands out.

He's walking down the sidewalk with two thick and long braids, standing six feet and five inches tall, wearing a see-through shirt, carrying bags from fashion designers and smoking a cigarette. He's between New York Fashion Week events and his Broadway opening.

He approaches the Golden Theatre on 45th Street, where the marquee reads "the single most daring thing I've seen in the theater in a long time" — a quotation from Wesley Morris of The New York Times -- and has his name on it, in big, all-caps letters.

"Yes, it's crazy," Harris says. "I don't know. I'm still like, 'OK! I guess that's what's happening now.'"

The theater has been decorated for the controversial, explicit and funny work that sent Jeremy O. Harris on a rocket trajectory to Broadway: Slave Play.

The show explores the legacy of slavery in interracial sexual dynamics. It is visceral and graphic, and breaks pretty much every taboo around race and sex. It begins on a plantation, with a master-slave sexual scenario.

And it is officially opening Oct. 6, literally one block away from The Phantom of the Opera and Frozen. Unlike those shows, the only tune people are likely to walk away humming here is a Rihanna song.

At a recent rehearsal, Harris starts bouncing around in the theater as the music plays. The set is a two-story wall of mirrors, reflecting our faces back at us. At the top of those mirrors is displayed a lyric from that Rihanna song, "Work."

Notes on discomfort

Harris, who just turned 30, is the youngest black male playwright ever to have a play he's written on Broadway. And this opening is coming less than a year after the play ran off-Broadway — a pace almost unheard-of in the theater world.

Backstage, in the green room, he first sees the Playbill — the program — for his show.

"This all feels really wild," he says.

Harris opens it up to one of the first pages. His friend Morgan Parker, a poet, has written a foreword titled "A Note on Your Discomfort." Harris reads the first lines: "This might hurt. This could prod open regrets and secrets, and what you find could be shock. But there's nothing in Slave Play that you don't already know."

When someone tells you something enough, it can start to be real. Something that people told me a lot is that this play doesn't make sense on Broadway. - Jeremy O. Harris

Harris is bracing himself for how people might express that discomfort, hurt and shock. When Slave Play was produced off-Broadway last year, protesters started a campaign with the hashtag #ShutDownSlavePlay.

"There's so much potential controversy around whatever's happening, especially in the digital sphere, and not the New York Times sphere of it all," he says. "It means a lot when people co-sign the play."

In other words, his concern isn't about theater critics. It's about the people he's trying to reach.

"What I've told everyone at every meeting we've had — and it's really difficult to keep this ball in the air, because I think that this space just genuinely isn't made for it — but if the play isn't a hit with black people and young people, then the play's not a hit," Harris says.

We ran into one of those young black people at the box office in front of the theater. Tyler Grigsby was on his way to pick up a ticket to the first Broadway preview.

"I think anything that explores the spectrum of blackness is important, because it's not a monolith," Grigsby says. "And I think any of our narratives need to be seen on this stage."

This is, of course, a rather risky narrative.

"There's a lot of safe stuff on Broadway, but that bores me," Grigsby says. "So, I want to be excited. [Harris is] my contemporary. I want to support people that are writing stuff that excites me."

"I feel like I paid you to come and say this," Harris says, laughing.

Brave spaces

After the first preview show — after three acts without an intermission, laughs, gasps, tears, and a standing ovation — it's time for the after-party.

Actors and producers mingle with models and writers. Unlike a lot of Broadway plays today, this cast of eight does not include a single big star. Some of the cast members have been working on the project since its first reading at the Yale Drama School — like Irene Sofia Lucio, who plays Patricia.

"I think that we're all into safe spaces right now," Lucio says. "But we might need more brave spaces, where people speak their truth and we start to lean in and listen to things that make us uncomfortable instead of walking away from each other.

"Safe spaces tend to really worry about when somebody is in discomfort, we need to nurture them and make them feel like they're safe and they're OK. And in a brave space, when you feel discomfort, you're supposed to sit with it and acknowledge that that's part of the process towards growth."

It's not only the theater world that's excited about Harris. He's a consultant on the HBO show Euphoria. And he's writing a film screenplay with the Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen, who's also at the after-party, and gives his own analysis of the impact.

"It's because of the time that we're in right now and what this play is about, is why it happened so fast," he says. "The play is exploring so many things that are on people's minds right now in this really complicated, difficult time. A lot of it's about race, but not just about race — about gender, about identity, about expression, about how people connect and interact or aren't allowed to."

The next morning, Harris sits in his hotel room. Before he can start an interview, he needs two things: coffee, and the song that he's woken up to every day for the last few weeks ("Due West," by Kelsey Lu).

The first Broadway performance of Slave Play in front of a paying audience is behind him, but he's not basking in his success: "Everyone was great. I have notes," he says. "You know, we gotta tinker."

For Harris — and the rest of the company — there still remained a fair bit of worry about the play's staying power.

"I mean, even last night, I was like: Well, I literally don't know if we're going to stay open for the rest of the week," he says. "I'll celebrate week one when it's over. ... Also, when someone tells you something enough, it can start to be real. Something that people told me a lot is that this play doesn't make sense on Broadway."

We'll soon find out whether Slave Play makes financial sense on Broadway. But in the first week of paid previews, the show played to a crowd that was 99% full, including plenty of celebrities — and a woman Harris describes as his "idol," the "patron saint of the play."

On Saturday, Rihanna came to see the show.

Jolie Myers edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even in Times Square, crammed with tourists from around the world dodging people in superhero costumes, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris stands out - walking down the sidewalk with two thick long braids, 6'5", dressed in a see-through shirt, carrying designer bags and smoking a cigarette. He's between Fashion Week events and his Broadway opening, approaching a marquee with his name on it.

JEREMY O HARRIS: We are standing on 45th Street across from the Golden Theatre and a sign that says, the single most daring thing I've seen in a theater in a long time.

SHAPIRO: And there's your name in big, black all-capital letters.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes, it's crazy. I don't know. I'm still, like, OK (laughter). I guess that's what's happening now.

SHAPIRO: That quote about the single most daring thing I've seen in the theater is from The New York Times, referring to the controversial, explicit and funny play that sent Jeremy O. Harris on a rocket trajectory to Broadway. It's called "Slave Play."

HARRIS: This is before Act 3. This is in Act 3.

SHAPIRO: Last week, we dropped by the theater for a final rehearsal before the first Broadway preview, when an audience can pay to see the show for about a month of performances before opening night. The show explores the legacy of slavery in interracial sexual dynamics. It begins on a plantation with a master-slave sexual scenario. The play is visceral and graphic. It breaks pretty much every taboo around race and sex. And it is opening in a theater literally one block away from "Phantom Of The Opera" and "Frozen." Unlike those shows, the only tune people are likely to walk away humming here is a Rihanna number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Work, work, work, work, work. You see me, I be...

SHAPIRO: Jeremy O. Harris starts bouncing around in the theater as the music plays. The set is a two-story wall of mirrors reflecting our faces back at us. At the top of those mirrors, a lyric from that Rihanna song, "Work."

HARRIS: We have to walk a really far way up to the green room.

SHAPIRO: Harris is the youngest black man ever to have a play he's written open on Broadway. He just turned 30. And this opening is coming less than a year after the play ran off-Broadway. That kind of speed is almost unheard of in the theater world. So the time we spend with him is full of these pinch-me moments, like backstage in the green room, when he first sees the Broadway playbill, the program for his show.

HARRIS: This all feels really wild. Oh, here we go.

SHAPIRO: He opens it up to one of the first pages.

HARRIS: A poet friend of mine named Morgan Parker wrote this really beautiful note on the play called A Note On Your Discomfort.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us like a sentence or two of it?

HARRIS: (Reading) A Note On Your Discomfort - this might hurt. This could prod open regrets and secrets, and what you find could be shock. But there's nothing in "Slave Play" that you don't already know.

SHAPIRO: Harris is bracing himself for how people might express that discomfort, hurt and shock. When "Slave Play" was produced off-Broadway last year, protesters started a campaign with the hashtag #shutdownslaveplay.

HARRIS: There's so much, like, potential controversy around whatever is happening, especially in the digital sphere and not like just The New York Times sphere of it all.

SHAPIRO: Right.

HARRIS: It means a lot when people co-sign the play.

SHAPIRO: What I'm hearing is that you're a little bit nervous, not about whether it will be positively reviewed by theater reviewers, but about how it will be received by the people who you're trying to speak to.

HARRIS: Oh, 100%. But I've told everyone at every meeting we've had. And it's really difficult to keep this ball in the air because I think that the space just generally isn't made for it. But like if the play isn't a hit with black people and young people, then the play's not a hit.

SHAPIRO: We run into one of those young black people at the box office in front of the theater. Tyler Grigsby (ph) recognizes Harris the playwright.

HARRIS: Hi.

TYLER GRIGSBY: Hi. Can I get a selfie or are you busy?

HARRIS: Yeah, of course. We can do a selfie.

GRIGSBY: Congratulations.

HARRIS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Are you just picking up your ticket to the play?

GRIGSBY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When are you going to see it?

GRIGSBY: First preview, tonight.

SHAPIRO: Can I just ask why you think the play is important, what impact the play, do you think, will have on Broadway?

GRIGSBY: Yeah. So I haven't - I missed it at the New York Theatre Workshop. But I just think anything that, like, explores the spectrum of blackness is important because it's not a monolith. And I think any of our narratives need to be seen on this stage.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of black narratives on the stage that are not as risky as this one.

GRIGSBY: Yeah. Yeah. There's a lot of safe stuff on Broadway, but that bores me. So I want to be excited. He's my contemporary. I want to support people that are writing for me and writing stuff that excites me.

HARRIS: I feel like I paid you to come and say this.

SHAPIRO: Well, I hope you enjoy the show.

GRIGSBY: Thank you.

HARRIS: I'll see you later.

GRIGSBY: Happy opening.

SHAPIRO: Hours later, after three acts without an intermission - laughs, gasps, tears and a standing ovation, it's time for the after party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Actors and producers mingle with models and writers. Unlike a lot of Broadway plays today, this cast of eight does not include a single big star. Some of the cast members have been working on the project since its first reading at the Yale Drama School, like this actress.

IRENE SOFIA LUCIO: Irene Sofia Lucio, and I play Patricia.

SHAPIRO: I ask Lucio why she thinks Harris is having so much success right now. What is it about his voice and message?

LUCIO: I think that we're all into safe spaces right now, but we might need more brave spaces where people speak their truth. And we start to lean in and listen to things that make us uncomfortable instead of walking away from each other.

SHAPIRO: That's an interesting distinction. Explain what you mean by brave spaces as opposed to safe spaces.

LUCIO: Safe spaces tend to really worry about when somebody is in discomfort. We need to nurture them and make them feel like they're safe and they're OK. And in a brave space, when you feel discomfort, you're supposed to sit with it and acknowledge that that's part of the process towards growth.

SHAPIRO: It's not only the theater world that's excited about Harris. He's a consultant on the hit HBO show "Euphoria," and he's writing a film with the Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen, who's also at the after-party.

BRUCE COHEN: It's because of the time that we're in right now and what this play is about is why it happened so fast.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say that?

COHEN: The play is exploring so many things that are on people's minds right now in this really complicated, difficult time. A lot of it's about race but not just about race, about gender, about identity, about expression, about how people connect and interact or aren't allowed to.

SHAPIRO: The next morning, I catch up with Jeremy O. Harris at his hotel room. Before the interview, he needs two things - coffee and the song that he's woken up to everyday for the last few weeks. He pulls up "Due West" by Kelsey Lu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUE WEST")

KELSEY LU: (Singing) My mind put you onto a throne.

SHAPIRO: I ask how he's feeling now that the first Broadway performance of "Slave Play" in front of a paying audience is behind him. He's not basking in his success. He says, everyone was great. I have notes.

HARRIS: You know, we've got to tinker.

SHAPIRO: One of the people who works on the show who I was talking to about it was like, the company has always not really believed that this was actually going to open on Broadway, that, like, at the last minute, they would pull the plug.

HARRIS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: But now the audience is here. So even if they turn off the power, we'll all just like turn on flashlights and do the show anyway.

HARRIS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Did you have that same feeling?

HARRIS: Oh, yes. I mean, even last night, I was like, well, I literally don't know if we're going to stay open the rest of the week. So I will call you. I'll celebrate week one when it's over.

SHAPIRO: Because it's such a challenging play or why? Like, what's the fear?

HARRIS: I mean, I think that, like - I mean, I think also when someone tells you something enough, it can start to be real. Something people told me a lot is that, like, this play doesn't make sense on Broadway.

SHAPIRO: We'll soon find out whether the play makes financial sense on Broadway. "Slave Play's" official opening night is October 6. But in the first week of paid previews, the show played to a crowd that was 99% full, including plenty of celebrities and a woman Harris describes as his idol, the patron saint of the play. On Saturday, Rihanna came to see the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me, I be work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt. There's something 'bout that work, work, work, work, work, work. When you a gon' learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn. Me na care if me tired, tired, tired, tired, tired, tired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.