In “Cross Talks,” two writers sit down to discuss a piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree; other times, they’re in perfect harmony.
Here, Contributing Writer Paul McLaren ’21 and Assistant Arts and Culture Editor Nathan Pugh ’21 discuss “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris on Broadway: a play that has sparked rave reviews and outrage over its recreation of slavery which is (spoiler alert) revealed to be sex therapy for three modern-day interracial couples.
Nathan Pugh: I went to see the show with my friend Esmé who is also white/Asian, but she’s in a relationship with a white guy, so she was having….
Paul McLaren: A moment?
NP: A moment in a different way than I was having a moment. We also saw it with a bunch of white Wesleyan theater people, because we’re all interested in theater. Theatrically, “Slave Play” is….
NP: Yeah! What was the audience like for you? Who did you go with?
PM: I went with my boyfriend who is also Black and mixed. I think it’s important who you go with. The audience was super white: we sat next to these old white British people, they probably came from Connecticut, definitely super white. But there were some Black people, you know bougie Black people, from the city, I guess.
NP: The audience for me was obviously mostly white and old. These white women who sat next Esmé asked her, “Did I see you earlier today?” And she was like, “No.” Like, you saw some other Asian girl. There were a lot of Asian people in my matinee, and I was like, “Where do non-Black POC fit into this whole world?”
PM: I think that’s such an interesting question. As a mixed person also I was definitely made aware of a sort of privileging that goes on. The funniest part to me was the Dustin monologue where he was like, “That is erasure!” And he went on about his erasure, meanwhile his boyfriend Gary is a Black dark-skinned gay guy. There’s that moment where Dustin is like, “You’re a bougie Black person. You’re the one who goes to, like, the nice cafés,” sort of reciting what we think of the neo-liberal white racist does, but inhabited by this gay Black guy. Dustin weaponizes that against Gary, saying, “I’m going through shit and you’re the one conforming.”
NP: Dustin is the closest representation of someone like me I’ve seen onstage. Where else am I going to read a play about a mixed white gay person? Watching Dustin was like, “Wow, this is exactly who I am.” There was no translation, I have been/am him. And I hated him. I hated that character so much. The whole erasure line, I was laughing at it, but I have felt that before. I understand where he is coming from. But to contrast what he’s going through with what his partner is going through, and to say that they’re even on the same playing field, is horrifying.
PM: To get back to your earlier question: non-Black POC are not white people. But the POC label has flattened and reduced the experiences of marginal groups, undoing the progress that’s been made in intersectionality. I think the label POC in many ways can be regressive. Because, are we all this one thing? Is there really unity? Jeremy wants to say “There is a difference between Black POC and POC, between queer Black men and Black women.” It’s not the same. It’s not at all comparable for Dustin to say, “I’m going through this, too!” to his Black boyfriend. What Dustin does is really an act of violence.
NP: Problematizing the POC label is important. I also get frustrated on this campus when people use the label “queer” to mean anything they want it to. It’s saying everyone has the same experience in the LGBT community, and no, not everyone….
PM: Not everyone experiences queerness or Blackness or Asianness in the same way. These things impact different bodies in different ways. Queerness has also become a kind of moniker for some sort of deviance.
NP: I saw a lot of myself in Dustin. What character drew your attention?
PM: I feel like sometimes I’m a combination between Phillip and Gary. I understand Gary because he’s gay and I related to his need to co-opt whiteness to be a part of the queer community or a community that’s successful. Phillip is funny to me, he reminds me of mixed Black people I know who really haven’t come to terms with their Blackness in a certain way. I know a lot of Alanas, Jims, Dustins. I don’t know if there’s one person I identified with, I don’t want to tie myself to one character.
NP: I know some Phillips in my own family. I was also wondering…how this show got to Broadway? What the desire for people to see it is. Before going in, how much of the play did you know?
PM: I didn’t know anything.
NP: I knew the second act twist going in.
PM: I didn’t know about that. I was really glad it happened, because I was like, “Oh my god is this whole play going to be antebellum South sex scenes?” The second act was incredible writing, the way that the dialogue and arguments were being developed.
NP: Just the fact that it was people, literally sitting on stage talking, and I was still on the edge of my seat.
PM: Because you’re like, this is an essay about love and race, but it’s presented in this comedic dialogue on the stage. It just felt very lucid and complicated and personal. I think you get a lot of emotion in the last act. It really opens the door, leaves things unsaid. I saw Jeremy’s other play “Daddy,” and it felt very much in this style, very inconclusive, leaning into discomfort. Ugh, I hate that phrase!
NP: I know what you mean, though.
PM: Not tying a bow on things. Opening doors, and giving way to really difficult questions.
NP: I feel like the show is very academic. He’s drawing upon so many theories that he could’ve written an academic research paper. But to choose to make this into a play allows for a kind of cross-cultural argument…that’s hard when you’re just writing in the first person. I was also intrigued by how entertaining and funny it was. Watching the slavery scenes in the first act, I couldn’t stop hearing white people laughing at the recreation slavery, finding pleasure. And that’s subverted, but there was a part of me that couldn’t get past that.
PM: There’s the inside of the play and the outside of the play. Inside of the play is what’s happening onstage, and outside of the play it’s on Broadway. The audiences are mostly white—how are they engaging with this? I was kind of looking around during the first act, and my laughter and reactions were out of sync with everyone around me. They were laughing at things I don’t find particularly funny. The white people in the crowd were so, “Ha, this is so funny! I would never! This is not me.” I think the intention of the mirror behind the stage is to show that the audience is creating the play just as much as the play itself. They’re critical to the show, to how we might tease out meaning, what we take away. Which is already a loaded ask, I will say. This is a more general question about art. How do we go into art with didactic prescriptions like, “I’m going to get something out of it?” Our conversation is already predicated on that.
NP: It’s like…I don’t want to put pressure on this play to solve something.
PM: That’s a part of it, too. What can we ask of this play? What do we expect it to do? And are those expectations reasonable? What does this do for the world? Do we want white people to go see this play and have some sort of epiphany?
NP: But it’s also, who is this play for? “Slave Play” can have a preview with a completely Black audience and can function. I think Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” is a cool companion piece. “Fairview” needs white people, and Drury has said it can’t function without having a white audience. Something about what it’s doing is speaking to them; the ghost of white spectatorship haunts “Fairview.” Doesn’t the same happen with “Slave Play?” Jeremy O. Harris says he wrote his show for himself, and I’m like, “Okay, sure….”
PM: Well, especially for Black artists, I don’t think their work needs to be for anyone. Black people are so conditioned into that history, to do things for other people. If this play is for Jeremy, it’s for Jeremy. There’s this interview with Anderson Cooper and the artist Mark Bradford. Cooper says something like, “What do you think gives value to your work? Where would be without the art market, people investing to give your work value?” Bradford says, “Excuse me, this has value because I say this has value! If I was waiting on people to say that this has value, I would still be waiting today!” For someone like Jeremy, his work has value because he says it does. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think it’s significant that this work can have value for himself outside of what it does for others.
NP: He titles the play’s third act “Exorcise.” That’s a phrase also used by playwright Djanet Sears about her writing. Maybe playwriting can be kind of a self-exorcism, getting something out of you that you don’t want?
PM: The last scene in “Daddy” also has this spiritual side. Jeremy is definitely in touch with religion and spirituality.
NP: There is a spiritual element to this show, with the ancestors. I’m from Virginia, and when Kaneisha’s talking about the annual plantation trip, I was like yeah! I remember shit like that. There’s a Civil War base five minutes from my house where I used to play on the playground and where people do drugs. In the center of my town is a Confederate statue pointing to the South. You just kind of live with that, you’re just surrounded by it constantly, maybe you’re not even aware. I found it really compelling to just name that out loud…. How did you feel just walking out of the theater? Did you have people to talk to?
PM: I was with my boyfriend Campbell, we drove back to Wesleyan talking the whole way back. Going into the theater, all the white people, coming out and seeing this sea…being the only Black person in my eyeline. I’ve spent so much time thinking and reading, but…I’m inclined to go back to my earlier point. What are we getting at when we say, “Let’s unpack this play, analyze and deconstruct?” I think we should get comfortable with saying, “This is a play for Jeremy, for whoever sees it. Whatever you take away is what you take away.” That’s okay. It’s not the end of the world if something is hard to understand. To understand is not actually the primary objective.
NP: Being comfortable with that lack of resolution is something that runs so counter to an academic setting!
PM: Or what we’re doing right now. Reaching towards a goal, some sort of resolution or catharsis. With the work that we’re seeing now, the question of “What is this supposed to do?” is no longer such a concern. There’s been an interesting turn to focusing on process. Process and presence. Not “I’m going to have this insane realization.” That kind of thought is exactly what Jeremy’s resisting.
NP: That kind of thought turns theater—turns any Black writing—into a tool for you to use to get whatever you want.
PM: Exactly! It instrumentalizes. Let’s just allow it to be a present piece of process—wow, alliteration—made simply for existing. I’m struggling with the language for this because we’re so conditioned to think about art in the opposite way. You can turn to someone like Fred Moten, about turning Black study into this practice not of transcendence or progress, but of process, exhaustion….
NP: Or like, Saidiya Hartman and the “incomplete project of freedom.” Just…walking out of a theater, usually I want to turn to the person I saw it with and talk….
PM: And say, “What did I learn?”
NP: Or “Do you remember this moment? What did you think of that?” It’s just a theater convention, right?
PM: Yeah. When you leave the work of a Black artist, the expectation is already hard-wired that the art undoes racism. Jeremy can’t escape the prescriptions of “my play needs to work against white supremacy.” I think the more productive way of reading the play is not using it like a tool….
NP: I just imagine a white person who goes to see Broadway shows often, buying these expensive-ass tickets, being like, “I need my investment to be worth it. I need my time and money to pay off.”
PM: Even if it was free! There’s still time, energy, and labor that makes you say, “I want something in return for that.” To resist that prescription is already radical.
NP: Walking out of the show, instead of talking to Esmé, I was just quiet. I didn’t have anything to say. I couldn’t really speak for 30 minutes.
PM: What’s wrong with that? You just witnessed an incredibly moving piece of art, you don’t need conversation. Why do we want some academic to tie the loose ends for us? Or even some reviewer? Let it be what it is. We shouldn’t look to anyone else or ourselves to find an explanation or some concrete resolve.
NP: What’s genius about the show is this very conversation is included within the text.
PM: It’s baked into the show!
NP: They’re like, “Let’s process this, let’s ruminate!”
PM: Isn’t that the word Jim hates? “Process….” That whole second act is, “Let’s unpack, let’s understand….”
NP: “Let’s break this down…”
PM: Yeah! It’s poking fun of the whole discourse of unpacking. It’s self-reflexive about the show itself. We see how futile it is to unpack slavery. That therapy they undergo, it actually does very little to solve their problems. Because essentially what that therapy is asking is “How can we escape our racism and really love each other?” The therapy’s futility is…
NP: You’re not going to escape racism.
PM: It’s not going to happen so we should stop trying. Same with the outside of the play. How does this play edge at the edifice of racism and white supremacy in some way? It doesn’t. It never will. So why are we asking it to do that work? It’s not that it doesn’t, but to instrumentalize it and to put that burden on it is unfair.
NP: I just…Yeah, after the show, I was like, I just need to sit. Not even think it over, but be with it. I’m still kind of in that space. The idea of “processing” slavery is…we’re never going to be able to do that…. I want more people to see this show, I want more people to read it. We don’t even need to “process” it together. I just want them to experience it.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul McLaren can be reached at email@example.com.