When Slave Play opened at New York Theatre Workshop in fall 2018, Jeremy O. Harris’ play generated the kind of buzz few playwrights can claim in a lifetime, let alone at the start of a professional career. Harris’ first play to be produced (while he was still a grad student) was extended and sold-out, attracting a slew of celebrities. Now, Slave Play—a provocative study of sex, race, psychology, and history—moves to the John Golden Theatre, marking the Broadway debuts of both its playwright and its director, Obie winner Robert O’Hara.
“I was drawn to the audacity of the voice, the non-linear quality, and that it was close to the type of work that I like to do,” says O’Hara, himself an acclaimed playwright of such plays as Barbecue and Bootycandy. “Slave Play usurps the audience’s opinions. It allows them to get comfortable before choking them, a little bit. The audience is left with many more questions than when they began.”
For Harris, working on Slave Play has been the opportunity to work with an artist he’s long admired. Before O’Hara was Harris’ professor at Yale, the two met via email when Harris reached out to O’Hara, requesting a copy of one of his plays. “The work that’s being presented is so married to the work that my director has also been working on [that] makes it feel like I’m walking very much in step with someone else,” says Harris. “That we’re dancing in time together.”
For O’Hara, bringing Slave Play to life has meant leaning into the uncomfortable questions it, and its playwright, ask. Questions about the ways in which the trauma of slavery continues to inhabit our spaces, minds, and bodies today. “I believe that when we put slavery onstage, that it should cost us something to watch it and to experience it. Just like it cost us something to go through it as a country,” says O’Hara. “I don’t think anyone should leave [the theatre] unscathed.”
Scathed, outraged, delighted; Slave Play has provoked a litany of strong reactions, all of which have added to the play’s buzz. But Harris is determined to stay focused.
“What’s most important right now is making sure that I honor all the people that came before me. And recognizing what it means to be here [on Broadway]—because it’s not insignificant,” says the playwright. “Finding ways to come back to the private self—the self that wasn’t thinking about awards or commercial success—that is just thinking about telling a story well and that feels true. That’s what I’m trying to stay in.”