The question of how we move forward is deeply and uncomfortably entangled in the past. What still needs to be acknowledged? And to what and whom do we owe thanks? Jeremy O. Harris, a playwright making his Off-Broadway debut this winter with two world premieres, is grappling with these questions both in his work and as an artist.
Harris’ Slave Play, currently at New York Theatre Workshop through December 30 in a world premiere directed by Obie winner Robert O’Hara, looks at the ways in which slavery, racism, and centuries of suffering continue to play out in the minds and bodies of Americans today. For Harris, the theatre may just be a safe enough space to sit with some of that trauma and find a way to talk about the things we keep putting aside.
“[In the theatre] we can actually see psychology manifest itself onstage and our bodies mirror that psychology,” says the playwright. “The only way we’ll know the subjectivity of others is by sitting with their psychology for two hours, without a filter. Just embodying it. Maybe that can be the path to someplace past empathy—to radical empathy, a state of being innovated to make change or see the world differently.”
Slave Play and Harris’ "Daddy"—which will have its world premiere in winter 2019 in a co-production between Vineyard Theatre and The New Group—are in good company. “I think this is the most inclusive year I’ve seen since I’ve been watching theatre in New York,” says Harris of a season that is rich with the work of queer writers and playwrights of color. But he’s reluctant to label it, as some have, a “renaissance.”
“It isn’t new. All these things that we’re just now articulating as ‘being done for the first time,’ have all been done,” says Harris. “Douglas Turner Ward existed. Alice Childress existed. Ntozake Shange, at 27, had a play on Broadway that didn’t look like any play people had seen before. Melvin Van Peebles had a musical. People of color were taking risks and doing exciting work before.
“We can’t pretend that this moment is the first time it’s ever happening because we do a disservice to every person who put a brick in a path for me to get here,” says Harris. “We’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”
Slave Play plays Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop ( 79 East 4th Street) in a limited engagement run from November 19 through December 30, 2018.