It was, quite possibly, the most widely heard post-performance discussion in theatre history. Well, the last few minutes were anyway.
Last week Jeremy O Harris, the author of Slave Play, moderated his own panel, with actor Joaquina Kalukango by his side. While there were no more than the legal maximum number of audience members in the house at Broadway’s Golden Theatre that night, a video clip shot by an audience member – one of several to emerge – has been seen by 1 million people and counting.
It shows a member of the audience – a white woman – commandeering the conversation to loudly and angrily accuse Harris, who is black, of racism against white audiences. She also makes the claim that through the play, Harris has said that she isn’t a marginalised member of society. She takes this as an affront due to her personal experiences, which she details.
Harris, showing calm composure despite the circumstances, says: “I never once said that you, as a white woman, are not a marginalised person. If you heard that in my play, I don’t know what to tell you.” The woman counters, saying that the play has “a whole bunch of stuff about how white people don’t understand how racist they are.”
Harris responds: “This isn’t every white person. This play is about eight specific people and if you don’t see yourself up here, that’s great, you aren’t one of them – you aren’t. These are eight specific people that are in a play that is a metaphor for our country and therefore doesn’t represent every single person in it.”
When she asks what the solution is, Harris replies: “I don’t know.” The woman then says: “I’ve spent my whole life trying to make a fucking solution.” At this point audience response, comments from those who shot the videos, and an overlapping comment from Harris render what is said next briefly unintelligible.
When Harris says: “I think you’ve given us another really amazing play,” the woman storms up the aisle to depart. On Sunday, again via Twitter, Harris shared a segment of the stage manager’s show report which notes that the woman returned to the theatre to demand a refund and that security was called in response to her interaction there.
While the word is often overused, it’s pretty clear that this woman was ‘triggered’ by the play and it’s easy to wonder why she didn’t leave midway. Perhaps if she knew that the play would be followed by a conversation, she decided to wait in order to confront Harris.
Slave Play, about three interracial couples engaged in a radical form of counselling, is an unflinching work, but not a specifically condemnatory one. The self-examination the characters undertake and struggle with was certainly an issue for this one audience member. What she saw in it she found wanting, or perhaps too close for comfort, but certainly, a post-show discussion should never be confused with a therapy session, or be a platform for one person to monopolise with their own critique or story.
The play does ask white audiences to consider their own relationship to race and sexuality, but it asks no less of black audience members. There is, by no means, unanimity in its reception or interpretation. All patrons, not only the black and white audiences, presumably may correlate it to their own experiences with mixed-race relationships.
The woman who shouted out at Harris last week may be racist, troubled, or honestly trying to grapple with her place in American society and its history of slavery – it is impossible to discern. But as uncomfortable, affirming, informative or amusing other audience members and online viewers may have found the outburst, it is in its own disruptive way, proof that Harris’s play successfully touches a nerve, something that many playwrights presumably seek to do.
Whether everyone hears or receives everything exactly as Harris intended, this was no doubt one single dramatic example of the countless conversations the play has set off. Of this specific exchange, and why he allowed the woman to have her say instead of quickly moving on, Harris told The Washington Post: “It would have been hypocritical of me as someone who said from the beginning that I wanted this to be a play that sparked conversations.”
Thinking about it now, had the playwright been white and the audience member black, would the situation have played out as it did? Would another author have been able to so skilfully steer the confrontation? Would the audience have been as attentive? Would security have hung back as they did, waiting to see if things escalated further, rather than stepping in immediately? These thoughts correlate with those in Slave Play, so I can’t help but wonder.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s first play since winning the Pulitzer prize in 2014 opens Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, set in a women’s halfway house and boasting a cast of 18, is directed by John Ortiz, artistic director of Labyrinth Theater Company and a frequent collaborator of Guirgis’s.
Greater Clements, the newest play from Samuel D Hunter, continues his exploration of his home state of Idaho, which has encompassed such plays as A Bright New Boise, The Harvest, and Pocatello. Directed by Davis McCallum, Clements focuses on an increasingly diminished mining town and a woman who has the possibility of getting out for a better life elsewhere. It debuts on Monday at Lincoln Center Theater.
Previously interpreted for the stage in a dramatic version by Orson Welles in 1955 and a campy musical version in 1990, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick gets a new musical adaptation from Dave Malloy, creator of Octet and Ghost Sonata. It opens on Wednesday at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, directed by Rachel Chavkin, who previously collaborated with Malloy on Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
Following its debut earlier this year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place gets its New York debut on Thursday at Playwrights Horizons, once again directed by Les Waters. The play focuses on a woman who may have the ability to communicate with the dead.
Christopher Shinn’s adaptation of Odon von Horvath’s Judgement Day, about a momentarily distracted stationmaster who precipitates a train tragedy, takes over the vast drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory for a limited run which promises an immersive environment recalling the great rail stations of Europe. Opening Tuesday, it features Luke Kirby in the central role under the direction of Richard Jones, whose expansion of his Old Vic production of The Hairy Ape at the Armory was a major event three years ago.