Broadway Review: ‘Slave Play’

Jeremy O. Harris’ gleefully shocking comedy about race and sex transfers to Broadway.

Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan.

2 hours

Jeremy O. Harris’ broad send-up of race and sex in America, “Slave Play,” isn’t outrageously funny. But it does have its funny moments — and it certainly is outrageous.

In the very first scenes, we’re confronted with three vignettes of seduction and copulation. For starters, a slave named Kaneisha (the abundantly talented Joaquina Kalukango) enthusiastically seduces Massa Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), who prefers to be called Mista Jim, by throwing herself on the cabin floor and twerking.

In the next scene, a sexually frustrated Southern belle named Alana (Annie McNamara, in a sparkling Broadway debut) bounces seductively on her great big canopied bed while flourishing a formidable black dildo. Her very handsome servant, Phillip (Sullivan Jones, a sight to behold), has no choice but to service his lusty mistress.

Poor thing, Alana is not only sexually unsatisfied, but also bored senseless by her reading material. “Every book is the same,” she wails. “A man is sad / A man is sad so he builds a cabin / A man is sad so he finds a wife / A man is sad so he leaves his wife / A man is sad so he befriends an injun /  A man is sad so he kills the injun / A man is sad / A man is sad / A man is sad.”  (A critic is laughing / A critic is laughing very hard / A critic is laughing so hard she falls on the floor.)

Alana is what we might call a pistol. Inflamed with passion for the exquisite Phillip, a master on the violin, she orders him to stop playing “stuffy European music” like Beethoven and Mozart. “Play something that’ll make me hoot and holla like the negresses outside, waiting to run on ya later,” she says.

The third vignette takes us into the plantation barn, where a white indentured servant named Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) is baling hay under the watchful eye of a black overseer named Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood). Dustin’s wooing of Gary isn’t any more subtle than the rutting rituals of the characters in the previous two scenes. But the outcome is the same: a graphic simulation of wholly consensual sex.

A little of this sophomoric humor goes a long way. (No surprise here: the playwright was still at Yale when he wrote “Slave Play.”) It comes as a relief then, when — spoiler alert! — the next dramatic turn reveals that those three vignettes were only exercises at a sex-therapy retreat for interracial couples in troubled relationships. Director Robert O’Hara, however, doesn’t direct this new material with the same kind of inventive playfulness that made the previous play-fantasy scenes seem so clever.

It’s Day Four of course study, and social scientists Tea (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) are generally pleased with everyone’s progress. But a lot of work remains to be done by, among others, the audience, who might be feeling a tad manipulated at this point. “Fantasy is complex and it is multifaceted and it is real,” says Tea, who is gung-ho to “process” all the material they collected from the first four days of therapy.

“Honestly, it was just hot to me,” says Alana. “Really hot.” McNamara has such a good grip on her cheery character that the play finally feels like a comedy, rather than a precious school exercise.  Unfortunately, further discussion about the fruits of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy never returns to the wonderful simplicity (and hilarity) of Alana’s honest evaluation of the entire process. That’s a pity, because the remainder of the play, in which the participants analyze (and act out) their therapy sessions, turns out to run cold.

Broadway Review: 'Slave Play'

Golden Theatre, 793 seats, $159 top. Opened October 6, 2019. Reviewed Oct. 4. Running time: TWO HOURS.

Production: A presentation by Seaview Productions, Troy Carter, Level Forward, Nine Stories, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, Shooting Star Productions, Roth-Manella Productions, Carlin Katler Productions, Cohen Hopkins Productions, Thomas Laub, Blair Russell, WEB Productions, Salman Al-Rashid, Jeremy O. Harris, Mark shacket, executive producer, and New York Theater Workshop of the New York Theater Workshop production of a play in one act by Jeremy O. Harris.

Creative: Directed by Robert O’Hara. Sets, Clint Ramos; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; sound design & original music, Lindsay Jones; dramaturg, Amauta Marston-Firmino; production stage manager, Gwendolyn M. Gilliam.

Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan.

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