Jeremy O. Harris, before and after the “Slave Play”
When the first coronavirus lockdowns took effect, and the global mood was one of quiet excitement and fear, playwright Jeremy O. Harris lives in a two-storey flat in London. He had traveled there to produce his play “Papa,” about a young black artist who falls into the slavery of an older white man. “Daddy” opened Off-Broadway a year ago, and was scheduled to open at the Almeida Theater at the end of March 2020; It would have been Harris’ first professional opening abroad. But the show never got off the ground, and Harris was stuck in London for weeks, and eventually months.
Sad about the play and afraid of the world, he spent the first few weeks without writing—even though numerous deadlines, his constant companions, hovered at the edges of his mind. Since high school, Harris has used late nights and early mornings as a time to work, party, and talk about art with friends. Now he enjoyed cartoons, listened to Fiona Apple and began reading “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde, which he had always intended to get to. As the weeks passed, he grew tired of the vampires. “I decided I wanted to see the sun more,” he said one April morning, as streams of light formed bright rectangles on the apartment walls. Waking up at normal hours means dealing with pedestrian harassment. He had started ordering coffee from a nearby café, and twice in a row, even though he ordered it black, it arrived with milk. “It’s like everyone’s watching ‘The Plot Against America,’ which is a lot like ‘The Plot Against Jeremy,’” he said, referring to the HBO miniseries based on the novel by Philip Roth. “
Harris is very tall and very thin, and he handles his body with offhand precision, formally within a casual setting, like a dancer on a day off at the mall. A gesture that begins at his shoulder always ends at his fingertips. When he feels for ideas between sentences, he makes shapes in the air with his hands. It has a translucent cedar skin and a wide mouth. His eyes are calm and lowered when he is in a neutral mood, but open wide when he is telling a story or expressing an urgent (often dissenting) opinion. Stories sometimes call for him to stand up and act out important passages from events. His first dream before writing was acting.
When the third coffee finally came, he sat on the sofa by the window and lit a cigarette. He said many people he knows have taken up smoking again, despite the deadly respiratory disease spreading around the world: “Our lungs could fail at any moment, and we’re just, you know, facing it.”
The coffee and the American spirit, the white light through the window—his instinct about getting up with the sun had been confirmed. The apartment was pleasant during the day. On one wall was a large abstract painting in burgundy and burgundy colors and bright shades of lipstick. Upstairs was a bedroom he shared with his new friend, Arvand Khosravi, a film and television executive. At the top of the stairs was a glass door that led to a shallow ledge on the roof, where Harris would often go to film TikTok videos — mostly poppy, fast-paced musical takes on scenes from classic plays — which he posted almost daily. In one of them, entitled “Law of Titus Andronicus V“, lip-syncs dialogue from the TV show “Catfish” in four different costumes, lasting nine seconds.
Harris makes TikToks for fun. They were, for weeks, his only means of creative expression. But they were also, and not subtly, digging into the profession through which he gained his recent fame. Rooted in history and the canonical repertoire of theatre, but dramatically tied to hyper-mainstream rhythms, attitudes and styles, her TikToks showed that Harris could do what major arts institutions couldn’t keep up with. As they stumbled, he thought the show would continue from his phone. He changed the bio on his frequently updated Twitter account to a kind of elegy for the theater: “I spent my twenties devoted to a comatose craft.”
The stages everywhere were dark. Theater companies and nonprofits were scrambling. In both their public statements and private conversations with playwrights, they exude cheerful optimism, as if their operations will be up and running by the end of the summer.
“Like, no guys!” Harris said, describing his frustration. “We have to reinvent or recreate this, otherwise it will be even more damaging to artists in six months, when you’re wasting your resources trying to go the normal way.” Papa was still in limbo in Britain, and he had another play, A Boy’s Company Presents: Tell Me If I Hurt You – his version of a Jacobite revenge drama, based on a particularly bad break-up – due to hit theatres. It premiered in May at Playwrights Horizons in New York. No one would officially admit—or perhaps allow themselves to believe—that future seasons would not happen, but Harris was already mourning the new play, just as he had been mourning “Papa.”
Despite his anger, thinking and talking about his industry’s failings seemed to energize him — almost to calm him — and his online complaints soon became reflective of a broader mood. As the initial shock of the pandemic gave way to a reassessment of racial and other societal arrangements, Harris became a kind of spokesman for the stark, long-simmering unrest that his fellow artists were suddenly feeling. It was a moment well suited to Harris’s natural, if somewhat contradictory, penchant for institutional criticism. He was happy to break the pleasant silence, however, and charted a professional and personal course through some of the entertainment world’s more sedate outposts: the Yale School of Drama; Gucci, who models for him; Various neighborhoods surrounding Hollywood in Los Angeles; And now, more clearly, the Great White Way. Last fall, “Slave Play,” Harris’s first work performed in New York, transferred to Broadway’s Golden Theater, after a long run at the venerable New York Theater Workshop, downtown.
“Slave Play” tells the story of three interracial couples who undergo “pre-war sexual performance therapy” in order to repair their relationships, which have been damaged by race. In the first act, before the audience gets into the premise, the couples—dressed in 19th-century garb, as masters and slaves—engage in various bizarre sexual scenarios calibrated to set off tripwires in race- and gender-sensitive American minds. . The second act, in which the actual treatment takes place, is downright funny. The third is a surreal, largely terrifying duet between one of the couples, a black woman and her white husband. Time and again, “Slave Play” calls into question the true standards of sexual consent, and attempts to wring present-day catharsis from the brutal history of master-slave rape.
In some corners—including this magazine, in a review I wrote—Harris has been praised for the rigor of his vision and the originality of his voice. The play’s overwhelming success was the precondition for many of the luxuries he now enjoyed: the flat in London, the European engagement, and the two-year development deal he recently signed with HBO. At the same time, “Slave Play” was a kind of trolling action, wrongly intended to destabilize and perhaps enrage the various constituencies—racial, sexual, institutional, and professional—to which he belonged. Harris must have known the play would have this effect. He seemed to relish the rhetorical chaos it left in its wake. Even before the pandemic, he had gained a reputation as an enfant terrible, the kind of designation that can only be achieved by proximity. You have to be fairly close to the big house to even consider throwing rocks.
“The thing I always wondered was when I was going to develop a black-influenced intellectual voice,” Harris said that summer, still stuck in London. He was thinking about some of his favorite writers and artists from the older generation, and the way their talk was often as bombastic as their work. He was thinking of André Léon Talley, the fashion writer and editor whose heightened language and baroque composition became hallmarks of his style—and seemed, moreover, like a way of asserting his belonging to a largely white milieu. Talley, who died last year, was, like Harris, a tall, eccentric, talkative black man from the South. His web of complex, and sometimes torturous, relationships with co-workers, bosses, and white benefactors was consistent with—and perhaps even influenced—the dynamics depicted in “The Slave Game.” Harris is not shy in his examination of other artists’ personalities. “I’m very interested in personal style, personal relationships, class, if not class ascension, then class association,” he said. “Just light some people.”
Talking about that voice—I knew what Harris meant without having to ask—made me think, perhaps a little defensively, about myself.
“I get it a little bit,” he said, emphasizing the fear she spoke out loud.
However, we agreed that the sound of our group at this difficult juncture – Harris is thirty-four years old – was distinctive. The kind of black millennial writer Harris had in mind was not someone publishing the serialized sentences of James Baldwin. Instead, this hypothetical thirty-something, who is as eager to display pop-cultural harmony and egalitarian modesty as he is to display hard-earned verbal dexterity, will use phrases peppered with “like” and “um,” as well as A little vocal fry, for more subtle tones than the falsely self-deprecating color: valley girl of an advanced degree.
“I know one hundred percent that I have a Valley Girl accent because of ‘Clueless,'” Harris said. “But also, partly, I think unconsciously, I did it so that my mind wouldn’t be terrifying to everyone around me. That’s part of my theatrics and it was also part of my upbringing – I always had to figure out how to translate things from the academy into a language that my mother could understand, without… Ask her to make time in her life to read., like Saidiya Hartman. A dramatic note in “Slave Play” quotes both Hartman and Hortense Spillers, another black feminist scholar, but the play itself takes Rihanna as its primary inspiration. “I had to To bring my education into a different space of understanding, which is why it was more fun for me to write theory-based plays than to go into it,” and then Jonathan wanted to get a divorce from Becca, or things like that.