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It’s hardly a secret that racial and sexual inequality were rampant in the 19th-century South, so perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that during the first 30 minutes of Jeremy O. Harris’ bravely audacious, exquisitely-acted “Slave Play,” now at the Golden Theatre, we witness (in somewhat graphic detail) three variations of this disturbing phenomenon.
First, Jim, a white overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan) on a Virginia plantation, stumbles through having his way with a sassy female slave, Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango); then Alana (Annie McNamara), the frustrated white wife of that same plantation owner, uses a sex toy to penetrate the bare ass of her strapping male “mulatto” servant, Phillip (Sullivan Jones); and, lastly, Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), an African-American in a rare position of power, and Dustin (James Cuasti-Moyer), a white male indentured servant, indulge in some hot-and-heavy fetishized gay sex on the plantation’s grounds. To quote the ever-popular rock group Queen: Is this the real life or is this the fantasy?
If you listen and look closely, the answer to that question isn’t really in doubt, thanks to Harris’ incisive writing and the brilliant direction of his collaborator, the equally provocative Robert O’Hara. Clues abound almost instantly, from the popular music (most notably, Rihanna’s “Work) that provides the soundtrack to some of these encounters to the spiky, modern plastic boots worn by Alana to the unexpected use of the word “Starbucks” at a pivotal moment. But what exactly we’ve been watching isn’t something even the savviest audience member is likely to figure out! (So if you want the rest of “Slave Play” to remain a mystery, please just stop reading now.)
Here’s the deal: the aforementioned sextet are actually three modern-day interracial couples who have agreed to participate in a study of “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” a fairly radical experiment that’s been concocted by an interracial lesbian couple, Tea (the mild-mannered but quietly seething Chalia LaTour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio, alternately hilarious and infuriating), neither of whom can stop babbling in “theraspeak.”
The show’s hour-long (and slightly overlong) second section is devoted to exploring these couples’ dilemmas -- problems that Harris acknowledges that may feel familiar to anyone involved in a long marriage or partnership -- as well as engaging in a deliberately uncomfortable dialogue about identity (racial and otherwise) in today’s America.
The therapy has been designed to help the black partners explore their sexual desires, but it’s not surprising that the white halves of the couples initially dominate the conversation. Ultimately, Phillip (Sullivan, deliciously subtle) reminds the well-meaning Alana (McNamara, hilarious) that he doesn’t really feel “black” – that is until the session triggers a painful memory from his college days. Gary (a stunningly vulnerable Blankson-Wood) beautifully expresses his sense of always being the undervalued partner in a society where African-Americans are almost immediately considered second-class citizens, especially as his feelings are exacerbated by the fact that Dustin (played to satiric perfection by Cusati-Moyer) is needy, vain and, yes, slightly deluded. (After all, he consistently insists he’s not really “white.”) And the surprisingly quiet Kaneisha –portrayed with deep feeling by the extraordinary Kalukango – finally explodes with complete, well-articulated disgust after the utterly confused Jim tries to “explain” himself via a text he wrote while in the restroom.
Still, it’s the final section of the play that really shakes us to our core. Kaneisha and Jim (the superb Nolan bares all, literally and figuratively, here) make one last, obviously desperate attempt to reconnect in their hotel room (which makes optimum use of Clint Ramos’ mirrored set). Yet, as she shares a telling story about being the only African-American schoolgirl on field trips to Virginia plantation, we sadly begin to understand Harris’ real point. All of us – black or white -- who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Meanwhile, “Slave Play” makes a kind of history of its own, boldly bringing Broadway into unfamiliar waters! Bravo!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones,Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036