‘White supremacy was never hidden from me’: Jeremy O Harris on bringing Broadway hit Slave Play to the UK

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It is week 2 of rehearsals for a accumulation that promises to beryllium 1 of nan theatre events of nan twelvemonth – nan London premiere of nan American sensation Slave Play – and a fold-up metallic chair is taking a battering. There is an ear-splitting clang arsenic it is many times flung to nan level successful bid to cleanable a fraught segment involving a group therapy convention for sexually dysfunctional couples. When nan chair accidentally grazes nan limb of 1 character successful nan couple, nan different – who threw it – becomes momentarily distraught. In swoops nan female who doubles arsenic intimacy coordinator and conflict head pinch calming words and instructions connected really to support nan segment safe. This fleeting incident is simply a measurement of really aggravated rehearsals are for a play that breaks group and intersexual taboos to an grade that is rare, if not unprecedented, successful nan commercialized theatre.

The chair-throwing confrontation involves 1 of 3 interracial couples who person resorted to “antebellum intersexual capacity therapy” successful an effort to salvage activity lives that person been destroyed by nan humanities baggage of their differing tegument colours. This therapy consists of enacting utmost plantation-era fantasies and past deconstructing them. For Dustin and Gary (played respectively by 1 of 5 Tony-nominated actors from nan Broadway production, James Cusati-Moyer, and nan caller British enlistee Fisayo Akinade), nan imagination explodes from a conflict to unsmooth activity betwixt a achromatic indentured servant and his achromatic enslaved overseer. When I visit, nan actors are rehearsing nan deconstruction scene.

“I’m not white. I can’t beryllium white,” insists Dustin, who has conscionable performed nan servant. “You ever opportunity you’re not achromatic but what are you?” thunders Gary. “You conscionable get to beryllium successful this ambiguity of ‘nonwhiteness’… I’m achromatic black black, bluish black, pitchy black, raisin black, eerie black. People person seen truthful overmuch colour successful maine they could make a caller rainbow pinch nan shade, but they ever spell backmost to black.” As nan shape directions make clear: “This is simply a play astir shades, colours, arsenic overmuch arsenic it’s astir race.” The directions besides authorities that it is intended to beryllium “a drama of sorts, and should beryllium played arsenic such”.

Among those watching nan segment unfold successful nan southbound London rehearsal room is nan play’s 35-year-old author, Jeremy O Harris, who wrote nan first draught of nan play successful his first twelvemonth arsenic a postgraduate student astatine Yale schoolhouse of drama. Though he is now besides an character and a producer, pinch six projects of various kinds connected nan spell (and Rihanna connected velocity dial), it is Slave Play that has caught nan wind. So acold it has sailed an eight-year course, from student readings to an off-Broadway accumulation and connected to Broadway itself, wherever it picked up what astatine nan clip successful 2020 was a grounds 12 Tony nominations. Though it didn’t triumph immoderate of them, it had go a societal arena that reached acold beyond emblematic well-heeled audiences. An HBO documentary astir this journey, directed by Harris himself, will person its premiere astatine New York’s Tribeca movie show connected 10 June.

In a motion to nan contention nan play has attracted on nan way, nan movie opens pinch a furious involution by a female astatine a Q&A aft a performance, astir favoritism against mediocre achromatic mothers. Though nan Broadway tally attracted small flak, its early days were a different story. Death threats were made against members of nan cast. The hashtag #ShutDownSlavePlay was group up and a petition circulated calling for nan play to beryllium halted.

News that Slave Play was coming to nan UK was initially overshadowed by a statement astir plans to clasp two “black out” nights during its 13-week run. Black Out nights – designed to let group of colour to watch nan play “free from nan achromatic gaze” – person been happening successful nan US since 2019, arriving successful London successful 2022 pinch Harris’s acclaimed play Daddy astatine nan Almeida theatre. But contempt assurances that nary 1 had yet been turned away, Downing Street waded in pinch a tin-eared informing that “clearly, restricting audiences connected nan ground of title would beryllium incorrect and divisive”.

Harris responded pinch characteristic ebullience. “Hey 10 Downing Street and Rishi Sunak,” he tweeted connected X, “… there’s virtually a warfare going connected … possibly nan decease of thousands of Palestinian children should beryllium much ‘concerning’ than a playwright attempting to make nan West End much inclusive to those who aren’t historically invited there.” It has since been announced that 30 pay-what-you tin tickets will beryllium released each Wednesday successful a thrust to promote anyone who is incapable to spend West End prices.

In person, Harris is simply a 6ft 5in shot of energy, foppishly dressed successful a tweed jacket, retro vessel apical and tie, who bounces betwixt sitting down to beryllium interviewed and striding astir nan room taking video calls, pinch a cup of iced java successful 1 manus and his telephone successful nan other. At 1 constituent his multitasking surreally merges into 1 arsenic he pauses to return a slurp of his coffee, while holding his mobile retired to present maine to a group of group he is talking into supporting a play he’s producing by an aged assemblage friend.

Kit Harington rehearsing pinch Fisayo Akinade and James Cusati-Moyer.
Harington rehearsing pinch Fisayo Akinade and James Cusati-Moyer. Photograph: Helen Murray

Most of nan contention complete Slave Play has been generated by group who haven’t seen it, he insists, earlier admitting that it really goes correct backmost to its earliest days, erstwhile a female module advisor astatine Yale took beardown objection to his portrayal of a young achromatic woman, Kaneisha, who finds solution done a challenging submission fantasy. “I consciousness for illustration if that person, and a batch of nan module astatine Yale, had had their way, I would person had a intelligence breakdown and this play would ne'er person existed. I felt really nether onslaught pinch it,” he says. “That personification said: ‘You’re making 1 of nan astir misogynistic choices I’ve ever seen made. This is simply a vile, vile point to do and, by nan way, different group deliberation truthful excessively but are excessively acrophobic to show you.’ And it was this weird infinitesimal wherever I’m nan student who’s being told I person each this powerfulness and I’m truthful scary. And nan past point I wanted to do pinch a play was wounded people.”

Harris, who exorcised nan trauma successful a scatological experimental play, Yell: A Documentary of My Time Here, intelligibly knows his theatre history. He cites Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane and Debbie Tucker Green among his domiciled models, and location are clear echoes, successful nan first 2 of Slave Play’s 3 acts, of Churchill’s feminist classical Top Girls, which likewise follows a comedic humanities cosplay pinch a modern-day governmental deconstruction. “I wanted to activity wrong a contented that excited me, that asked daring, analyzable questions,” he says, while pointing retired his investigation is not done done books, but done nan various tabs he has unfastened astatine each times connected his machine erstwhile he’s working. “I fto my encephalon travel things it’s excited by.”

Fortunately, nan play besides instantly began to stitchery supporters, including nan actors Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio, who person played nan roles of nan 2 therapists since nan very first readings. Director Robert O’Hara was 1 of Harris’s professors astatine Yale erstwhile he was sent nan book for information retired of nan blue. O’Hara recalls reference done it pinch his hubby successful bed. “My first guidance was, like: ‘Why americium I ever nan personification that they nonstop nan outrageous crazy crap to?’ And past I sewage to nan extremity of nan first act. And I said:‘Oh, I cognize why’ – because nan 2nd enactment was a deconstruction of everything I had conscionable read. It did precisely what it was trying to do, which impressed maine a lot.”

O’Hara was clear from nan disconnected that nan play needed an intimacy coordinator to thief pinch its definitive enactments of activity and subjugation. So he sewage successful touch pinch Claire Warden, who credits nan play pinch introducing her domiciled to nan New York theatre arsenic a due job. She publication nan book connected a bus. “I retrieve thinking, first: ‘How nan hellhole are we going to do this?’ And, second: ‘We have to do this,’” she says. “When I said to Robert, he said: ‘I don’t want you coming successful present and making everybody comfortable, because it’s an uncomfortable play.’ But that’s not what intimacy coordination is about: it’s astir making actors consciousness they tin perpetrate to it bravely and frankly, and show these powerful stories without damaging themselves arsenic quality beings.”

In nan first workshops, says O’Hara: “We conscionable thought it was a caller play by a very breathtaking playwright. But erstwhile we started nan [off-Broadway] presentation, location was a batch of worry from New York Theatre Workshop successful position of really should they person a speech astir it? How should they hole their audiences? And I ever said: ‘If you’re going to put nan connection “slave” connected nan broadside of a building, past you should not travel successful reasoning that you’re going to find comfort.’ From nan start, location was genuine interest, and not conscionable successful a caller voice, but successful nan themes and nan ideas wrong nan play.” Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, Scarlett Johansson and Stephen Sondheim were among nan stars who went on to cheque it out.

The Broadway accumulation of Slave Play.
The Broadway accumulation of Slave Play. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

But that was arsenic acold arsenic O’Hara – aliases anyone progressive – thought it would go. When he was approached astir taking it to Broadway, he first thought nan producers must beryllium having him connected and past that they were crazy. “It was a downtown theatre show,” he says. “But erstwhile we sewage to Broadway, we realised that location was a abstraction for this type of activity that Broadway did not usually accommodate. There was abstraction for boldness and a level of intrigue astir title and activity successful American and British history. And truthful it became a speech that has grown successful each loop of it.”

The New York Times agreed. In nan run-up to nan show, it ran a preview headlined: “Is Broadway fresh for Slave Play?”; aft it had closed, it followed up pinch an interview-based wrap-up titled: “Was Broadway fresh for Slave Play?” It concluded that though nan show hadn’t recouped its costs, it had brought successful 100,000 group to nan 800-seat theatre complete 19 weeks, truthful nan reply had to beryllium yes. It helped, says O’Hara, to person a writer who was happy to prosecute connected societal media and take sides his play publically against criticism, because that took nan work disconnected nan group successful nan rehearsal room: “Allowing nan play to beryllium nan speech and not reasoning that you had to take sides nan play arsenic you create it.”

Among nan couples looking connected pinch rapt attraction during Dustin and Gary’s confrontation pinch nan chair are Kaneisha and Jim, played by 2 of nan caller recruits to nan formed for nan West End run. Olivia Washington plays Kaneisha, nan characteristic who caused each nan fuss backmost successful nan play’s early days and who remains its astir challenging character. She is simply a achromatic American, joined to a achromatic British expat, whose plantation imagination involves twerking for an overseer who brandishes a whip and forces her to eat a melon from nan floor. Her husband, played by Kit Harington, is mortified by nan domiciled this forces connected him.

No sooner was this caller casting announced than a caller contention struck up astir nan deleterious effect of prima casting successful West End shows. Harington, who made his sanction arsenic nan charismatic Jon Snow successful Game of Thrones, is contemptuous. “It’s my sixth master play, truthful it’s not for illustration I’m caller to theatre,” he says. “We’re actors. We’re conscionable doing nan play because we want to.”

Washington, who is Hollywood royalty – nan girl of Denzel and Pauletta Washington – saw nan play off-Broadway arsenic a reasonably caller play schoolhouse graduate. “I conscionable retrieve emotion that nan acquisition was incomplete. I had nary thought what nan communicative was about. But aft watching it, I instantly felt I person to publication this, because I cognize I missed things. And I was right. I did miss things. I deliberation what I emotion astir Kaneisha is that she’s very judge astir nan things that she wants for herself. And that that’s not really dictated by what group astir her deliberation is simply a bully idea. So I deliberation it’s conscionable astir having to beryllium comfortable pinch not needfully being a cleanable thought of a young achromatic female today.”

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She has nary qualms astir her parents coming to spot it, she says. “My family comes to everything that I do, truthful I deliberation it would beryllium weirder if they didn’t come. Neither my mom nor my dada person done theatre successful London, truthful I deliberation they’re very proud to spot maine successful this space.”

In these febrile times, erstwhile appropriation of immoderate benignant has go a reddish line, it whitethorn look not only presumptuous but reckless for a man to scope truthful boldly into nan intersexual fantasies of women. But Harris is having nary of it. “I deliberation that arsenic a queer man, there’s a history successful literature, from Tennessee Williams to Hanya Yanagihara, of queer men and overseas women having a benignant of a earthy relationship. There is simply a matrimony of these identities that I deliberation intends location tin beryllium immoderate sublimation, and a consciousness that, done nan enactment of writing, 1 tin easy measurement wrong a abstraction that has definite psychic parallels. I’m a triple, a quadruple Gemini, truthful I’d opportunity Kaneisha represents 1 of galore parts of myself.”

In immoderate ways – because they’re connected nan incorrect broadside of some history and gender – Slave Play is hardest connected its achromatic antheral characters. The documentary shows actors struggling successful rehearsal pinch moreover speaking immoderate of nan much taboo words. How does Harington consciousness he will header pinch having to enactment retired utmost domination scenes 8 times a week? Though Jim is formed arsenic nan aggressor, nan enactment comes from Keneisha’s imagination, which makes him nan autumn feline of a bilious benignant of comedy.

Jeremy O Harris opinionated pinch hands resting connected his head. He is wearing jeans, a tweed blazer, and a knitted vest complete a garment and tie
Jeremy O Harris: ‘We’ve hardly moreover sewage to nan mediate of unpacking nan container of colonialism and racism.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“What I’m already uncovering is, if you unrecorded pinch immoderate character, you request to consciousness and empathise pinch them, and if they’re repetitively nan butt of a joke, it tin get benignant of achy successful a unusual way,” says nan actor. “He has his faults, obviously. But I emotion him, and I cognize he intends well, and he’s getting laughed at. I deliberation that whitethorn beryllium nan constituent wherever it gets difficult.”

In discussions early connected successful rehearsals, it became clear that slavery had not played arsenic large a portion successful nan history acquisition of nan British institution members arsenic it had for their American colleagues. “When we learned astir slavery – astatine slightest erstwhile I was astatine schoolhouse and I person to presume it’s not changed overmuch – we study that it’s an American point that happened complete there,” says Harington. “We don’t thin to study astir nan British portion successful it, and I deliberation that’s benignant of shocking.” The risk, he adds, “is that a British assemblage whitethorn beryllium titillated and shocked, but effort to beryllium backmost from it and talk and deliberation astir it for illustration it’s an American play pinch American issues. And I deliberation it’s our situation to effort to not fto them do that.”

Though this is nan first clip Jim has been played by a British actor, his Britishness is an important portion of nan play, points retired O’Hara. “Britain invented slavery. It is nan birthplace of what became American slavery, you know, and this characteristic has a disconnect. He’s pinch a achromatic female who grew up successful nan south, who visited plantations, and he has perfectly nary narration to nan history of slavery. So he’s ended up pinch that achromatic woman successful a therapy convention that is each astir thing that he has been successful complete denial of, for his full existence, and now he must face it.”

That, he concludes, is nan unsighted spot nan play is dealing with. “If you don’t cognize wherever you came from, and what was present earlier you, past you will extremity up repeating it, and to your detriment.”

In nan 8 years of nan play’s life, nan world astir it has changed; nan power and fury astir Black Lives Matter and #MeToo person abated. How does Harris consciousness this has affected it? “I don’t cognize that my world has changed astatine all,” he replies. “The biggest point that has changed for maine arsenic acold arsenic my societal world is concerned is that I wrote this play earlier I had had a semipermanent relationship, and now I’m astir to get married. That’s a important displacement of worldview for me.”

But past he changes tack, saying he conceived nan play successful nan aftermath of nan murder of Florida teen Trayvon Martin successful 2012. “As a achromatic American, who grew up successful nan south, who besides was witnessing nan Black Lives Matter infinitesimal that came connected nan backmost of that, it was very funny to shape it successful 2018 and 2019, and past bring it backmost to Broadway successful 2021, station nan George Floyd protests. People were like: ‘Oh my god, it’s truthful overmuch deeper now. I get it more.’ And I’m like: ‘How?’ I became confused by a conception that location was ever a infinitesimal erstwhile achromatic supremacy was hidden from view, because it was ne'er hidden from me. It felt very overmuch a portion of my societal life, my activity life and nan life that I was seeing group live, moreover here, crossed nan ocean.”

Now that he has settled into his stride location is nary stopping him. “Rishi Sunak is nan first personification of colour to beryllium nan premier minister. Right?” he declares. “I person French friends who show maine each nan time: ‘We don’t person nan aforesaid title problems you guys person successful America.’ But I’m like: ‘There are truthful galore brownish group successful your state who will ne'er scope nan tallness of your judiciary aliases your executive astatine all. And yet you show maine that there’s not a title problem here?’ There are truthful galore women that aren’t astatine nan apical of these places, and we deliberation that we don’t person a gender problem?

“So I deliberation that, yes, nan world has changed astir nan play, but I deliberation nan logic it is still capable to garner audiences is because these questions are going to beryllium astir for a very agelong time. We’ve hardly moreover sewage to nan mediate of unpacking nan container of colonialism and racism.”

He flips unfastened 1 of nan galore tabs connected his telephone to nan previous day’s screen of nan Hollywood Reporter. It is titled “Drama queens” and features 7 of Hollywood’s hottest stars. Not 1 of them is black. “And, you know,” he says, “the truth that we went from 2020, erstwhile everyone was putting up a achromatic quadrate [on their Instagram feeds] and saying Black Lives Matter, to this? From: ‘I’m reference bell hooks for nan first time’ to now having problem uncovering a azygous achromatic character successful a play series? It’s shocking.”

He waits a hit for an acknowledgment that he’s correct – and of people he is. Then disconnected he bounces, pursuing his encephalon to each nan different things it’s excited by.

Source theguardian