EXTENDED THRU JANUARY 19
Herein lie spoilers. If you do not wish to have certain plot points given away prior to seeing the play, you should stop here and do not read any further.
by Michael Bracken
Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. It’s not for everyone. But if you can handle a brilliant production of a darkish comedy that uses sex to challenge our notions of race, odds are that Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’s winking paean to that obscure Southern-fried therapy, is, in fact, for you.
Just opened at the Golden Theatre, Slave Play has a cast of eight: four men, four women, four gay, four straight, four white, four black, four inter-racial couples. The two gay women are therapists, and the other couples are suffering from sexual dysfunction: the two black men can’t get hard and the straight black woman can’t achieve orgasm.
The play begins with each patient-couple engaged in over-the-top sexual role play—in the pre-Civil War South, of course. The audience doesn’t know that it’s role play, however, so the three vignettes seem cartoonish, funny but forced, unsettling.
Three variations on the master (mistress)/slave theme unfurl on a simple but dazzling stage, defined by bright lights above and a wall of mirrors that double as doors upstage. Scenic designer Clint Ramos has hung a rendering of a plantation over the front of the balcony, which gets reflected in the mirrors so that the MacGregor estate, in all its antebellum glory, is always present but never quite there. Lights get dimmed and brightened from time to time above the front section of the orchestra, so that audience members get reflected (or not) in the mirrors. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting and Ramos’s set complement each other. Both are fabulous.
The play begins with Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) as an airhead house slave, reminiscent of Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind, seemingly desirous of the whip brandished by Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), an overseer not noticeably brighter. Plantation owner’s wife Alana (Annie McNamara) wants her foppishly attired “mulatto,” Phillip (Sullivan Jones), to play mulatto music on his fiddle while her husband is out. Not surprisingly, she requires additional fiddling, which she enjoys with the assistance of a dildo.
Next, dandified slave Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) happens upon white indentured servant Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), who is in rags. They trade insults, then fight in a sharply choreographed display of gymnastics and undress, culminating in erotic bootlicking.
Playtime ends abruptly, and then it’s time to debrief. That’s when Slave Play really catches fire. Psychobabble abounds, especially in the mouths of Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), interracial partners, personally and professionally, leading the group. Playwright Harris has a terrific ear for group therapy jargon, and the two women spout it with practiced clinical concern. They both support and compete with each other, making for another dynamic of humorous human interaction.
Meanwhile, the participants are all over themselves and each other, bearing their souls and confused racial identities with revelations and observations that are heartfelt, shocking, angry, and, more often than not, good for a laugh. They can also be good for a startling chill down your spine. The play offers few answers, but boy does it raise questions. Its dramatic structure is impeccable, as is its direction by Robert O’Hara. It steadily builds to a crescendo, yet when the crescendo comes it seems to have sneaked up on you. Dede Ayite’s costumes are sly and colorful, and the ensemble is tight as a drum, in sync with each other and holding nothing back of themselves.
Slave Play. Through January 4 at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). 120 minutes, no intermission. www.SlavePlayBroadway.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy