‘Slave Play’ is Coming to Broadway
There are a handful of adjectives that frequently feature in Broadway marketing materials. “Transgressive” is not one of them.
This fall, a group of producers is planning to change that. They are making the risky move of bringing to the Golden Theater one of the most buzzed-about Off Broadway shows of last season — “Slave Play,” a daring, provocative, unsettling, polarizing, and yes, transgressive look at race relations through the prism of the sexual hangups of three interracial couples.
The play was written by Jeremy O. Harris, 30, who began working on it in 2016, during his first semester at the Yale School of Drama; he graduated from the program this spring, and the play will be his Broadway debut.
“I’m very excited, mainly because when I was growing up, all the plays I revered were by writers who had worked on Broadway,” Mr. Harris said in an interview.
“Slave Play” is intentionally outrageous, set in a group therapy workshop testing an imaginary technique called “antebellum sexual performance therapy,” in which the couples use explicit sexual role play, set on a plantation but punctured by pop songs, to work through their issues.
“The play is about entanglement, and about the wound inside of America that has gone unhealed for too long,” Mr. Harris said.
The production will be directed by Robert O’Hara and produced by Greg Nobile, Jana Shea and Troy Carter, along with Level Forward, which is Abigail Disney’s company, and Nine Stories, which is Jake Gyllenhaal’s venture.
Mr. Nobile and Ms. Shea are partners in Seaview Productions, which is also co-producing “Sea Wall/A Life,” a pair of monologues performed by Mr. Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge, on Broadway this summer. Mr. Carter, producing on Broadway for the first time, helped guide the careers of Lady Gaga and John Legend. A former Spotify executive, he this year started a new music company, Q&A.
“Slave Play” is scheduled to begin previews Sept. 10 and to open Oct. 6. The producers said that they would make 10,000 tickets to the show available for $39 in an effort to broaden access.
The run is scheduled for 17 weeks; casting has not yet been announced.
“Slave Play” had a production last winter at New York Theater Workshop, also directed by Mr. O’Hara; it attracted rave reviews, but also prompted controversy and criticism that could intensify as the play gets more attention. Mr. Harris said that much of the controversy over the Off Broadway run was prompted by a photograph of the production, rather than the play itself, but that he was ready for a variety of reactions.
“People have a lot of unchecked emotions around these histories, and they should feel explosive, because it’s explosively relevant to who we are,” he said. “I just hope the controversy is a controversy of ideas and not a controversy of hyperbole.”
Writing in The New York Times, Jesse Green called the drama “willfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering,” while Wesley Morris said “‘Slave Play’ is the single most daring thing I’ve seen in a theater in a long time.” Many critics agreed, but not all; in The Guardian, Hubert Adjei-Kontoh wrote that “the play may simply give white people yet another platform to gaze on black bodies exposed to physical and sexual violence while simultaneously patting themselves on the back for ‘surviving’ the experience.”
Mr. Harris said he did not plan to make substantial changes before the play is presented at the Golden. He said he was heartened by the success last season on Broadway of plays like “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which is about the treatment of women in American legal history.
“People are ready to see something that feels different and is more challenging,” he said. “We’re at this moment, after the last season, where maybe the freaks can come hang out in the commercial landscape.”
He also argued that the play’s provocations are not that unusual in American culture. “The ideas inside of ‘Slave Play’ are not so radical,” he said. “And the things that happen on the stage happen every week in ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”
Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion, and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson
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