Why is it still so hard to talk about Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play”?
I was washing my hands and looking in the mirror when she caught my eye. First, I saw her fingernails, painted red. Tracing my fingers down her body, I met the gaze of a heavily scented black woman with taut, smooth skin and salon-fresh, shiny, wavy hair.
We were in the bathroom after one of the Blackout productions of slave game, performances that only black people were encouraged to attend. I had been holding my pee for almost an hour, waiting for the final blow of Jeremy O. Harris’ controversial show: the violent rape of black protagonist, Kaneisha, by her white male partner, Jim.
“What did you think of the show?” the woman asked, looking quizzically at my black face, adorned with Fenty Stunna lipstick.
I shook my head.
“Good?” A sardonic cadence to his tone.
“That was interesting,” I offered weakly.
“No, I mean what did you think of the piece as a whole?”
The woman leaned closer to me as wandering white people wandered behind her, having somehow found their way.
“It was goodshe continues, shaking her head: Law?
“That was good,” I repeated, now under his spell.
It wasn’t until later that night that I realized we weren’t having a conversation. She wasn’t interested in what I really thought of the production. I was trained to go and say it on the mountain, to tell any wandering white man who might ask me what I think of a play that makes a painful satire of slavery, that this play, slave game, has been good.
When the woman finished her work on me, she left. I watched her walk towards a bustling corner of famous black singers wearing their sunglasses indoors. “Salvation!” She greeted them with a mysterious mid-Atlantic accent.
At home, I thought about variations of the same question: was it slave game good? Was “good” even the right metric to understand the show’s impact? Was it productive? Was it ethical? Was that even “right”? Do we leave the show changed? What changes? What stays the same? What’s right and wrong, what’s needed and what’s not when it comes to representations of race and trauma?