Last night my girlfriend and I saw “Slave Play,” the sensational new work by Jeremy O. Harris from the Yale School of Drama (at least four other alumni are in the cast). With excruciating forensic detail, it shows how race and sex have always gone together in this part of the world, in ways that make us sick, and suffer, and try to recover from what the therapists call “desire disorder.” Also in ways that might heal us.
I read no reviews before seeing it, and I haven’t read any since. It’s the kind of theater you want to experience first-hand, so that no audience or critic comes between you and the performance. This is a mistake, of course, because there’s no such thing as pure experience—it’s always raw material; waiting for the retrospect, the narrative, that might, just might, make sense of it.
That’s the lesson psychoanalysis taught us. Freud, Ferenczi, Laplanche, and Lacan also taught us that each stage of childhood development doesn’t displace its predecessors—instead it changes their cognitive status and their social or political consequences. They remain as durable residues, constantly detaining and deforming those who make it to adulthood.
“Slave Play” works like a shrink would, in this sense, probing the antecedents for narrative clues, not causative conditions, and indeed its second act—but there’s no intermission—is a group therapy session run by two Yale psychologists who want to know what the reanimation of the submission that was slavery could mean for contemporary sexual politics.
Their clients, three interracial couples, have submitted themselves to a performance fantasy, where they reenact the roles inherited from antebellum slavery times, S & M style, to see what comes of regression to the infantile stage of American civilization. We, the audience, don’t know that when Keneisha and Jim, Philp and Alana, Gary and Dustin, take the stage to play their black and white roles from the 1830s or 40s. The time is out of joint as we’re taken back to Old Dixie. It’s not pretty, it’s not serene, it’s not romantic, it’s just terrifying, as any close inspection of the actual antebellum South would demonstrate.
And then the lights go down on the mirrors that are the back wall—with this trick of set design we’ve been able to see ourselves, the audience, as an instance of double consciousness—and suddenly these antebellum couples are arranged in bright yellow folding chairs, in modern dress, waiting on the earnest psychologists to elicit and countermand the stories they want to tell. It’s a bloodbath, as the shrinks—they’re an interracial couple, too—encourage their subjects to relive their history, to speak from the heart, from the place where anger gathers and aggression erupts. From where they had re-enacted the submission of black to white, and wondered how to refuse or—this is the hard part—to live by it.
No one survives this therapeutic siege. Not the audience, either (the play is 30 minutes too long). On this stage the equivalence of sexuality and slavery becomes self-evident, because slavery required direct control of black bodies. And we, as Americans, white or black, certainly haven’t recovered from the legacy of slavery. But the question the play raises is what happens when you can begin to begin to think, along with Dustin, a gay white man who refuses his whiteness, that domination, here expressed and enacted as white supremacy, kills all souls, white as well as black, male as well as female? Or, now that we’re beyond slavery, can we rethink what it meant, and still means? Can we ever get beyond the 19thcentury?
I could barely walk to the subway after two hours of this relentless interrogation. I am, after all—or is it before?—a white male. But the honesty and the audacity of the writing and the performances and the design give me new hope. Maybe we’ve reached a new verge in thinking about what it means to be an American.
This isn’t Kansas, Toto, it’s technicolor. And it ain’t “Hamilton,” either.