Joaquina Kalukango & Paul Alexander Nolan in Slave Play

Review of Slave Play on Broadway

David Walters
David Walters

How far back do our memories go? What's the first thing you remember as a child? How old were you? That memory is part of our current self and what we consciously know. Is there something deeper though, an unconscious ancestral memory?

We're often told by behavioral science that we, all of us, respond from a humanoid memory of aggression that enabled our ancestors to survive and dominate the planet eliminating other usurpers that also walked upright on two legs. If that memory does indeed persist and flow through us, then it follows that whatever has happened to our ancestors, no matter in what period of history, is a memory that has been passed along to us and that we carry within us and respond to the present world with and through it.

This is a play about that.

Slave Play, I'm sure you've heard of it if you are even slightly a theatre person. Having won numerous awards, been featured on countless top ten lists, has moved from its critically acclaimed run at New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway's Golden Theatre for a relatively short 17-week run. Its two hours split into three acts and no intermission asks the audience to look within (the set as one big mirror helps with that reflecting the audience back on itself) and see what ancestral memory we have that causes us to act and behave the way we do.

This is a play about the fallout of slavery of Africans in the United States and how that history is part and parcel in almost every human interaction. When a person has been in a relationship for a period of time, exchanges are not always about what is happening at the moment, but often carry the baggage of past hurts, convoluting the current exchange. This doesn't play out only with relationship tiffs, but can also be with how a person deals with both the actual and perceived pains the world inflicts upon us just by being alive.

This is a play about four racially mixed couples where the black partner's body no longer gets excited for the other and the journey each couple is on to find out why. Answer: it's historical, a tinnitus of an ancestral ancient drum that keeps ringing in their ears.

This is a play about more than those couples of course. It's about us. About our history as a people and its ancestral memory and how we all carry it with us today, and like our humanoid ancestors, respond out of it in almost every interaction.

As we currently experience the death troughs of male white supremacy in this country, I am excited on many levels. This play, for what it is telling us about ourselves (as many others also have in the last couple of years), excites me.

I feel this is not a great play, nor will it withstand the test of time, but what excites me about plays like this is that they address the grim fallout of our history, and as we are creating a newer better society, hopefully, and as art should, lead us to openly acknowledge that this past memory exists with us all and create a better world in spite of it.

(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

"Though it's mild, paradoxical and perhaps a bit prurient to say so, Slave Play is a happy surprise. It's mild because Jeremy O. Harris's play, which opened at the Golden Theater on Sunday, is one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years. It's a paradox because what could be happy in a play about pain? A play so serious, so furious and so deeply engaged in the most intractable conflicts of American life that it became both a cause célèbre and a scandal before it opened? And it's a bit prurient because when we talk about the provocations of "Slave Play" — and the people who saw it downtown last year at New York Theater Workshop have been talking about it almost nonstop since — what we usually mean is sex: the whip, the dildo, the nudity, the boots, the bondage, the orgasms both achieved and aborted. Those things are indeed a surprise, at least if you haven't watched television this millennium."
Jesse Green for New York Times

"Surprising and transgressive though it often is, Slave Play is not after shock for shock's sake. What it administers, with thrilling success, is shock treatment."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

"With all that time for development, most of the characters, such as they are, remain vague and archetypal. There's little change from start to finish, and therefore no investment from us. For better or worse, Slave Play is the sort of show you see to say you've seen it."
Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

"Playwright provocateur Jeremy O. Harris brings a black, queer, blazingly transgressive voice to Broadway with Slave Play, and much of the advance hype around the uptown transfer of this New York Theatre Workshop sensation has trumpeted those qualities as an imperative for mainstream audiences to "be part of the cultural conversation." That eye-rolling marketing blather from producers risks making it seem a manufactured hashtag hit, designed to seduce woke Manhattanites hungry for the new and the now. But this is a ballsy, often ferociously funny original work that deserves to be seen on its own merits."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"Jeremy O. Harris' broad send-up of race and sex in America, Slave Play, isn't outrageously funny. But it does have its funny moments — and it certainly is outrageous."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

Originally published on

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