Off-Broadway's 'Slave Play' Centers Sex Roleplaying Interracial Couples — Here's What Critics Are Saying

December 19 2018

The off-Broadway play Slave Play is giving critics a lot to think about.

The play, created by Jeremy O. Harris, stars If Beale Street Could Talk's Teyonah Parris, Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Paul Alexander Nolan, Annie McNamara, Sullivan Jones, Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio. It appears to be an artistically anachronistic look at antebellum racial politics and its influence on sex, lust and power in the lives of three interracial couples and the world at large.

Slave Play follows the interracial couples as they roleplay as slaves, overseers and masters to solve their sexual woes. The couples are taking part in an experiment called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy (or "slave play"), which is supposed to help Black partners rediscover their White partners and achieve a sexual gratification they once lost. To be clear, Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy isn't at all real--it's just a conceit used for the play. But this conceit is an important one to address the myriad of ways race and power play into sexual desires.

All of the couples involved pretend to be various people living in the fictional MacGregor Plantation in Virginia. Kaneisha (Parris) takes on the role of a slave who has an affair with Jim (Nolan), her partner who is roleplaying as a white overseer. Alana (McNamara) roleplays as the mistress of the house while her biracial partner Phillip (Jones) pretends to be Alana's well-dressed house slave. Gary (Blankson-Wood) is the slave who acts as the boss to white indentured servant Dustin (Cusati-Moyer). The therapists running the entire experiment, Teá (La Tour) and Patricia (Lucio) watch the chaos their therapy unleashes.

The characters within the play come to terms with how they may or may not participate in the racial power structure that also feeds into our sexual desires. The characters' journeys also allow the audience to reassess themselves and how they might have been brainwashed by racially-coded lust and power.

Many critics are loving what Slave Play is dishing. Soraya Nadia McDonald's piece for The Undefeated states that the challenging aspects of the story are what make it memorable.

"The magic of Slave Play, directed with stunning precision by Robert O'Hara, is that it dares to show white people to themselves, that they are moving through the world with an assumed neutrality that doesn't actually exist...Every white person in Slave Play is trying to outrun their whiteness...It is a delightful send-up of the way well-to-do, overeducated white people discuss racism as thought it has nothing to do with them personally."

McDonald also said that the play focuses on how northern whiteness is just as culpable in racism as southern whiteness by "peel[ing] back a veneer of racial innocence that still gets ascribed to this region of the country."

Frank Scheck's review for The Hollywood Reporter, however, is much more biting. He calls the play "not for the sexually squeamish," but states that the play "doesn't live up to its considerable thematic ambitions, suffering from stylistic overindulgence and repetition." However, Slave Play, he wrote, marks the playwright Harris "as a talent to watch."

Vox's Constance Grady called the play "a twisty, kinky investigation of how race and desire intertwine in the deepest and darkest parts of our minds." Grady also wrote about how the play analyzes how race, as a construct, is something white people can ignore even though it's something that Black people have a much more visceral and personal relationship with.

"This is a demanding play, and one of the things that it demands is the audience's discomfort," She wrote. "But that discomfort is productive--and in the end, it brings its own satisfactions. It creates a space in which the messiness and rawness of race and power and fantasy and trauma can unspool in a chaotic churn of impressions."

If you're in New York, you can judge the play for yourself; Slave Play is running at the New York Theatre Workshop. It's scheduled closing date is Jan. 13, 2019. Maybe you'll come away from it rethinking your entire sex life.

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