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‘This Is a Play About Shades’: Jeremy O. Harris Revisits ‘Slave Play’ Script

After playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ hit show Slave Play had its final performance at the Golden Theatre on January 19th, 2020, he was applauded by some for changing the way audiences engaged with Broadway theater — but also found many detractors. Harris had insisted on being a co-producer of the show, made sure to offer more affordable tickets ($39 rather than the average $124), and hosted a “Black Out” performance, which reserved all 804 seats for black students, performers, journalists, and artists. It seemed a shoe-in for Tony accolades, then the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Broadway and live performances around the globe. With everything in disarray, it was unclear whether the theater awards would happen due to the protracted season.

When Tony Award nominations were announced late last year, Slave Play garnered an historic 12 nominations, including: Best Play, Best Director (Robert O’Hara), Best Actress in a Play (Joaquina Kalukongo), two nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer), and two nominations for Best Featured Actress in a Play (Chalia LaTour and Annie McNamara). Although the presentation of the 74th Annual Tony Awards is still unclear, current plans are that they will take place in coordination with the re-opening of Broadway in Fall 2021, according to the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing. So, to keep things moving, voting for the Tony Awards will take place between March 1st and March 15th, 2021.

The play was a hot-button production for the way in which it explores racism, relationships, sexuality, consent, trauma, and representation. Its title is both a reference to American slavery, as well as sexual role playing. Rather than shrinking from the spotlight and criticism — from progressive members of the black community as well as conservative pundits — the playwright often stoked controversy on Twitter and other social media platforms. After one  performance in the fall of 2019, a woman interrupted a post-show Q&A to claim the production was “racist against white people” and asking during her expletive-filled diatribe why she wasn’t seen as a marginalized member of society. Harris responded: “I never said you aren’t. I never once said that you as a white woman were not a marginalized person. But if you heard that in my play, I don’t know what to tell you. Perhaps read it or see it again.”

In a new video, titled “Notes on Style,” Harris revisits his script — which is funny, complex, outrageous, and confounding — to remind people of its nuance, complexity, and purpose. The clip includes montages of scenes from the Broadway production (including Rihanna’s “Work,” which opened the show and serves as its “soundtrack”) and behind-the-scenes moments. As Harris recites: “Everything in life is a performance. I’ve chosen to present a performance of Antebellum life that is in conversation with the ways in which that time has been presented to and informed the world’s collective imagination of life in American South during slavery.”

Below, see our interview with Jeremy O. Harris in July 2020:

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