A Close Reading of Slave Play Interrogates the Burden of Interracial Trauma

Why must we depict Black characters as eventually reconciling their contempt for whiteness with a prevailing, individual romance that conquers that disdain?

Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in the New York Theatre Workshop production of SLAVE PLAY (photo by Joan Marcus and courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris)

Even before its release, with little more than a controversial title to judge, Jeremy O. Harris’s off-Broadway production Slave Play set theatre and non-theatre worlds abuzz. The stage play opened on December 9, and after press images were released on social media — generally images of Teyonah Parris as Kaneisha and Paul Alexander Nolan as Jim in some kind of intimate interaction — Black people lamented the exploitative potential of a play that appeared to rely on the optics of plantation sex (which, with no ambiguity, was actually rape) for its commentary about interracial intimacy and desire.

The melodrama, billed by the New York Theatre Workshop as an “antebellum fever dream,” has been lauded and re-conveyed to the public by largely white reviewers, another cause for Black consternation. Harris has received a fair amount of backlash for his work, and there was even a petition demanding its cancellation. The consistently sold out three-act play is wild and explicit; it recreates scenes of sexual violence in ways that could be described as anti-Black trivializations of historical trauma. It purposefully provokes, and the controversy it garners belies a vaguely autobiographical exploration of interracial desire on behalf of Harris, a Black man, himself.

My own exploration of Slave Play comes from a close and intimate reading of the script, rather than a review of the stage play (which I have not seen). Despite missing subtle non-verbal interactions between characters that one would enjoy in a live performance, treating the script like a written text allows for a different kind of slower, closer study.

Sullivan Jones and Annie McNamara in the New York Theatre Workshop production of SLAVE PLAY (photo by Joan Marcus and courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris)

It is easy to identify Slave Play’s clear critique of not-so-thinly veiled white liberal racism. First, there’s Alana, the interracial cuckold-loving, self-absorbed white woman who identifies the force of white masculinity as the real obstacle to progressive engagements of racism. Then there’s Dustin and his refusal of whiteness, partnered with his inability to describe himself beyond a negated racial identity.

The subtext of Harris’s writing compels his assumedly mostly white, theatre-going audience to pose some more difficult questions about their intimate interactions with Black people. The central question in any interracial endeavor should not be one’s presumed intellectual capacity to interact with individuals of other races, but rather one’s emotional capacity to attempt to understand Black people on their own terms. This is not simply a rejection of liberal colorblindness; this is a head-on confrontation of the Eurocentric worldview that Frantz Fanon (and Sylvia Wynter after him) describe as being incompatible with Blackness. Fanon wrote, “White civilization and European culture have imposed an existential deviation on the black man.”

Sullivan Jones and Annie McNamara in the New York Theatre Workshop production of SLAVE PLAY (photo by Joan Marcus and courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris)

The play’s first part is an enactment of the fictional “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” which is the heart of the play. It is framed through an imagined process of treating a psychiatric condition called anhedonia (a reduced ability or inability to feel pleasure), and is “designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” The therapy is described by its fictitious creators as a means of interrogating how “racialized trauma has not only transfigured the modes by which minoritarian individuals conceive of self but also the mode by which the minoritarian conceives self in relation to the other.”

But there is a sinister suggestion at play here. Because of the play’s medicalizing frame, it becomes unclear whether this “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” is positioned as a means of simply repairing broken relationships or curing the sexually deviant Black participants of their apparently pathological non-desire for white people. After all, Dr. King died for us to fuck across the color line.

The first act of the play is staged through a series of couples exploring the therapy. In the exchange between Jim and Kaneisha, Jim forces Kaneisha to eat a cantaloupe off of the floor “like a dog” and repeatedly calls her a “negress” as they have sex. After the reenactment becomes too much for him, Jim abruptly ends his scene with Kaneisha, which she describes as a betrayal because she believed the therapy would help her heal from her lack of sexual attraction towards him. Jim is not simply removing himself from a bizarre performance of plantation violence, he is failing Kaneisha as a partner. He will participate only if he is not forced into a racial-social frame that does not destabilize the still white-privileging liberal frame of self and other/Other that he inserts into this so-called therapy.

Teyonah Parris and Paul Alexander Nolan in the New York Theatre Workshop production of SLAVE PLAY (photo by Joan Marcus and courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris)

Predictably, it is this Black female character, Kaneisha, who sees the therapeutic intervention for the scam that it is. In the most worthwhile monologue of the show, she describes how she had been duped into believing that she was the unwell one when in reality it’s her white partner that is the diseased vector: “Your mere presence was biological warfare,” she reminds him scathingly, drawing on his genocidal lineage of colonizers.

Kaneisha lays bare the skewed logic and rationale of a therapy that places the onus for repairing generations of racism on Black people and deliberately traumatizes them with kinky master-slave scenes (despite the therapists’ claims that safely controlled aggression is “an accelerant to radical breakthroughs”). In spite of this manipulation, there is still resolution between Kaneisha and Jim. But why must there be? Why must we depict Black characters as eventually reconciling their contempt for whiteness with a prevailing, individual love that conquers that reasonable disdain? Is that a metric of progress? Why are white inner monologues not similarly revealed?

I’ve long found Sarah Kane’s Skin to be one of my favorite depictions of interracial intimacy because Black people’s bodies are not used as playthings for white negotiations of their own racialized (mis)understandings or desires for power. In Kane’s short play-cum-short film, Billy the skinhead develops a crush on Marcia, the Black woman living across the street. After assaulting the wedding party of an interracial couple with his gang of neo-Nazis, he returns home and subsequently has his first in-person interaction with her. She invites him into her flat and tenderly dresses his head wound. He comments on her soft skin, and she asks if he had ever touched a Black woman before. “Only with a baseball bat,” he replies. After they make love two times, the real fun begins. There is no climactic dialogue about interracial love (or lust) remedying hate, no transcendence of difference. Marcia beats him, she forces him to eat dog food, she scrubs his skin and swastika tattoo with bleach, and she carves her name into his back with a Stanley knife. He begs for her love, which she refuses, and he returns home and tries to overdose on pills. Fin.

Teyonah Parris and Paul Alexander Nolan in the New York Theatre Workshop production of SLAVE PLAY (photo by Joan Marcus and courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris)

It feels like Harris is implicitly posing the question of why Black people enter into romantic or otherwise intimate relationships with white people. Because if one needs therapy to correct a disappeared desire for whiteness as a result of intense and constant othering, is that relationship worth it? Presumedly “progressive” public discourse largely conveys interracial reconciliation through romance and sex and niceness as indicative of broad social progress or at least intrapersonal goodness. That’s what recent commercial commemorations of Loving v. Virginia, the insistence that mixed-race children will save us, and most of Amma Asante’s oeuvre (i.e. Belle, A United Kingdom, and Where Hands Touch) seem to suggest. I am not suggesting a racial purity project where our desires become as segregated as Jim Crow apartheid, because that would be a call to negate the existences of many bi/multiracial people, including people who are dear to me. But Harris, through uncomfortable and gratuitous sexual simulations (is there any way they could be subtle and still widely legible?), is asking us to consider the grounds upon which these Black/white relationships, always indelibly marked by coloniality despite our agentic desires, become foundational to dominant society.

I will reluctantly concede to a point made by a friend: that the anticipation or actual experience of racial violence in relationships with white people can be, perversely, less difficult than the loving and learning how to love and truly knowing how to love another Black person as you both endeavor to unlearn and refuse the barrage of anti-Black messaging you are both fed on a daily basis. Why would that portrayal not be understood as a social victory?

But given the historical demographic that has access to theatre, that question might be explored in a production specifically, explicitly, for Black people.

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