A Radical Moment in Theater: "Slave Play," Accessibility, and Discomfort on Broadway

By Rachael Nuckles

“At the MacGregor Plantation, nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems. It’s an antebellum fever-dream as three interracial couples converge to rip open history at the intersection of race, love, sex, and sexuality in 21st-century America.” (Slave Play Official Website)

(Promotional shot of actress Joaquina Kalukango. Photo courtesy of Slave Play Instagram account @slaveplaybway)

Theater has a long history of issues with accessibility, whether that means the exclusion of women actors, the physical separation of “high-brow” and “low-brow” [1] production on New York’s Broadway and Bowery, or the rising costs of a single ticket to a Broadway production. Black History Month is the perfect time to consider issues of accessibility, particularly through the lens of the recent Broadway production Slave Play written by Jeremy O. Harris. A recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama’s MFA in playwriting, Harris made history with his Broadway debut; at only 30, he became the youngest black, queer man produced on Broadway. [2] This isn’t the only history surrounding the play’s 17-week run. Directed by another black and queer man, Robert O’Hara, Slave Play “reimagines the possibilities of what theater can give us,” challenging accessibility norms and the topics represented onstage. [3] It marks a shift in what future Broadway productions could (and should) look like.

(Harris and O’Hara, playwright and director. Photo Courtesy of Ike Edeani for The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/theater/slave-play-broadway-jeremy-harris.html)

For Harris, his passion for accessibility “was about Black work begetting Black work and Black audiences.” [4] He not only wanted Slave Play to attract black audiences, but he wanted the work to inspire additional black art. In a report by the Broadway League, for the 2018-2019 Broadway season, 75% of audiences were white and the average ticket price was $145.60 per ticket. [5] These numbers show an ongoing issue in Broadway demographics, limiting who can afford to view this type of theater and who can feel comfortable in audiences. At such a steep per-ticket price, only those with money (and leisure time) will be able to access these shows. If mostly white people make up these audiences, it can result in an exclusive environment and theatergoing experience. Harris worked with his producers to change this for the run of Slave Play. First, Harris hosted Blackout Nights in which audiences were 100% black. These events were often made possible by word-of-mouth and free tickets to students. Further, Harris and his producers made 10,000 tickets available at only $39 per ticket, a price much more affordable than the 2018-19 average. On top of these efforts, to achieve Harris’s goal to inspire additional black work, a portion of profits from Slave Play went to support other black theater artists specifically at the National Black Theater in Harlem. Founded in 1968, the National Black Theater’s mission is as follows:

1. To produce transformational theater that helps to shift the inaccuracy around African Americans’ cultural identity by telling authentic stories of Black lifestyle;

2. To use theater arts as a means to educate, enrich, entertain, empower & inform the national conscience around current social issues impacting our communities;

3. To provide a safe space for artists of color to articulate the complexity, beauty & artistic excellence intrinsic in how we experience the world in the domain of acting, directing, producing, designing, play writing and entrepreneurial autonomy.

(National Black Theater Official Site)

The play is not only challenging accessibility on the producing side, but also in its themes. Slave Play is dictating who gets to be in the room and who gets to have their voice heard onstage. It’s of note that this production came in the same year as the 1619 Project by the New York Times, both examining the long-lasting effects of slavery in America 400 years after the fact. Both provoked social media conversation and occasional outrage. As the playwright has suggested, part of the success of the play is in the mystery of not knowing exactly what it is about. The element of surprise makes the events of the play all the more powerful as the story unfolds. Therefore, without revealing exactly what goes on, I want to acknowledge that Slave Play specifically addresses the generational trauma present in black America by observing its effects in intimate relationships. At its core, this is a play about race and sexuality; eight different people, all involved in interracial relationships, who approach their lives and relationships based on their individual intersections. Each character lives passionately in their truth, sometimes needing to step back and acknowledge that other truths might exist.

This point has made itself clear both within the script itself and within reactions to the script. In a viral tweet by the playwright, an angry white woman dubbed “Talkback Tammy” is visibly upset, suggesting that the playwright is “racist against white people” and ignoring her own marginalization. This woman’s value of her own truth over the truths of others is exactly the point that a production like Slave Play is making. In the recording, Harris notes that his play is meant to serve as a metaphor, and that eight people cannot accurately represent the whole of a country. Perhaps before becoming offended or hostile towards art, we should listen to what that art is saying and consider why it is we are feeling that way. Through “Talkback Tammy” we can see not only the need for work such as the 1619 Project or Slave Play, but also the power of theater in sparking discussion. Because the video was taken from a talkback, a discussion held after a production to address questions and themes within the work, we can see the efforts of the production team to facilitate an environment productive to discussion. At the same time, because the video was published on social media site Twitter, we can also see the more informal ways that Slave Play has sparked conversation. Often, the goal of a play is not to entertain but to educate through the shared experience of live storytelling. It can provide relevant social and historical commentary; rather than providing an escape from reality, Slave Play forces the viewer to look it in the eyes.

(Photo Courtesy of Sara Krulwich, The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/theater/slave-play-broadway-jeremy-harris.html)

(Jeremy O. Harris speaking on set during a Blackout Talkback. Image courtesy of https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/09/23/how-slave-play-got-800-black-people-to-the-theatre/ )

I had the privilege of seeing Slave Play in December, a seat at the back row of the mezzanine with a view of a stage like nothing I’d seen before. Early on in my academic theater career, a mentor always said that as artists and theater practitioners, our responsibility was to hold the mirror up to society. Walking into the Golden Theater, it was clear that this production would do just that. If it wasn’t abundantly clear by the conversations being sparked online and within the dozens of reviews, the set design seemed to make this point unignorable. A floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror made it impossible for the audience not to see themselves among the action of the play. While watching the characters, you’re also watching the audience; the reactions of certain attendees to events of the play can be just as informative as the play itself. Why are they reacting in such a way? How can the play be interpreted differently based on identity? What is the effect of the mirror not only in the performances of the actors, but in those observing? All are questions I am still processing as I revisit the script and consider the various opinions surrounding its message.

Theater is not always comfortable. In a space dominated by white audiences, designed to prevent access to marginalized groups, these discussions are long overdue. For Slave Play to approach accessibility so unapologetically is a piece of revolutionary history, specifically within American performing arts culture. I am lucky to have experienced it firsthand. Though the production closed in January, the script is now available for purchase. I would recommend giving it a read whether you’re an avid theatergoer or interested in the ways race, gender, and sexuality are historicized through media. For the theater historian or independent researcher, a recording was taken for New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at Lincoln Center. In future theater histories, this play is a necessity to include, analyse, and process.

Notes

[1] Typically, “high-brow” refers to consumption of the upper classes while “low-brow” is associated with working-class or popular/mass culture. In the history of New York theater, these types of entertainment were physically separated by street, Broadway housing the “high-brow” and Bowery housing the “low-brow,” though the types of entertainment encompassed by each have varied with changing social norms.

[2] Gilchrist, Tracy E. “Out Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Makes Broadway History With Slave Play.” ADVOCATE. Advocate.com, July 11, 2019. https://www.advocate.com/theater/2019/7/11/out-playwright-jeremy-o-harris-makes-broadway-history-slave-play.

[3]  Morris, Wesley. “A Radical Moment in American Theater and Beyond.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/theater/african-american-playwrights.html.

[4] Tran, Diep. “How ‘Slave Play’ Got 800 Black People to the Theatre.” AMERICAN THEATRE, September 24, 2019. https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/09/23/how-slave-play-got-800-black-people-to-the-theatre/.

[5]  The Broadway League. “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience NYC 2018-19.” New York, November 2019. https://www.broadwayleague.com/research/research-reports/

Recommended video link, “‘Slave Play’ is a performance filled with ‘intrigue and surprise’.”

Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and participation in subcultures, activist media technologies, and performance studies.

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