Slave Play is a work of speculative fiction. Originally a workshopped piece from the playwright Jeremy O. Harris’s time at the Yale School of Drama, it debuted Off-Broadway in November 2018, arrived on Broadway roughly a year later, and closed in mid-January of this year. In that time frame, it rocked the theater world, the academic world, and the entertainment world.
Whoopi Goldberg sat in the audience, as did Gloria Steinem, Rihanna, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Ratajkowski, and Rowan Blanchard. Slave Play became a critical darling in seemingly one fell swoop.
But some people didn’t fall for the hype. A ColorLines op-ed, for example, called the play “the same variation of ‘White people are terrible’ with nothing else going on,” and charged it with stripping “the darkest-skinned Black woman onstage of agency by reducing her fetishes and desires to subservience.”
Spoilers ahead, in case you haven’t already seen it, but Act I introduces the audience to three interracial couples (of one black person, the other white) on a Virginia cotton plantation: Kaneisha and Jim, Philip and Alana, and Dustin and Gary. The first act is called “Work,” titled after Rihanna’s song of the same name (which is also the first sound heard onstage as the enslaved Kaneisha is introduced).
Act II reveals that the narrative actually takes place in the present day, with each couple participating in a (fictional) role-play exercise called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, acting out a version of the master-slave dialectic to cure the black partners of their anhedonia, or inability to feel sexual pleasure. (It’s here that the title is revealed to be a clever turn of phrase). During a group-therapy session, the participants and the two therapists (who are later revealed to be not just professionally but also romantically linked) trip over and untangle their relationships to race and sex. In turn, the performance demands that the audience members do the same.
Ato Blankson-Wood met up with us in Brooklyn, a few weeks after his final bow as Gary, a plantation overseer to his boyfriend Dustin’s indentured servant. After being away from the emotionally and physically demanding role, the actor reflected on his participation in one of the most controversial pieces of theater to be performed on Broadway, learning to take up space, and what’s next for his film and television career.
When we met backstage after the play, I wasn’t sure where to begin with sharing my reaction with you.
When you saw the show, we had been doing it for over a year, between the downtown and Broadway runs. But even backstage, Sullivan Jones, who plays Phillip, and I would have this moment where it would be like, “This show is crazy. This show is so much.”
I have trouble explaining it to people who haven’t seen it, since they don’t know the big reveal that occurs in Act II. You can’t talk about that without spoiling the whole thing. You originated the role of Gary, though, right?
Yeah. I saw it when they did it during Jeremy’s second-year workshop at Yale. At that point I thought, I need to make sure I’m a part of this production when it comes to New York. Jeremy and I had known each other, and he had been writing Slave Play when we met, and he met James [Cusati-Moyer, who plays Dustin] and me. James and I are really close friends, and [Jeremy] didn’t have a gay couple in the show. Essentially, he met us and was like, there’s something in this dynamic that feels like it belongs in my play. It’s rare and such a privilege to have a role kind of molded around you. I feel really grateful to Jeremy for that.
What challenges did you experience when you first started performing the play?
It was a huge challenge. Especially because a lot of the buzz around the play was negative. I mean, a lot of it was positive, but the loudest bits of it felt really negative: About what we were saying about race, about the legacy of slavery in this country, and how we were disrespecting that and disrespecting the ancestors. We got to Broadway and the refrain got louder. I was like, I know what we’re doing, I know what we’re after, I know what we set out to do, and so anyone who has any opinions about that, I really can’t fix that for you. I can’t change anyone’s minds. I have to be devoted to the thing we set out to do.
This play has reached people outside of academia, outside of theater, outside of New York, and it makes some bold and true statements about black people and black stories being inexplicably linked to historical oppression. Did having this role molded after you put any pressure on you and your personal life?
Many of the dynamics that are present in the play, I would leave the theater and walk into those dynamics. I would say that it was revealing in my personal life. And healing. When I started, I was much closer to the character in terms of my personal life. But I think through playing this character, I started to heal and take steps away from this idea. I don’t think that the character values himself—or hasn’t until this point, and I think that’s been part of the tension in that relationship. I’ve definitely been a person who has struggled with how to stay confident, how to stay driven, how to stay optimistic, how to feel valued in myself. I think playing this role has helped me find that I’m the generator of my own value. But still, going back and dipping into that well of trauma and deep sadness this character has was challenging in personal ways too. To just be reminded of that feeling of devaluing oneself and allowing yourself to be devalued. That was really hard.
I think as an audience member, that’s what resonated the most with me. It felt almost as if the black characters onstage were speaking directly to me. I guess I could sum that feeling up as, “If you know, you know.” Slave Play isn’t speaking to everyone. Anyone can listen, but it is directly addressing black people or people of the diasporic experience.
It really is. And that’s why I found it so jarring when the response was what it was, specifically, from black folks. Because to me, it was articulating something that I had felt, and felt from a place of my blackness, mostly—less so my queerness. The things that this character was feeling that aligned with me all felt like they were centered on his blackness. And most of the other characters too, when I would resonate with other characters, it would be like, Oh, yeah, that has everything to do with how I have been perceived and been interacted with based on my blackness.
Watching this play is akin to the experience of being interpellated, to borrow from Althusser and Fanon. You almost feel as if you are being called upon or called to. It’s interesting that the early criticism, then, came from other black folks. I think the white people I know who’ve seen the play would be nervous to openly dismiss aspects of this play, even though there have, of course, been instances in which a white person openly disliked the show.
That feels like it’s really in line with the mission of the play. In that it’s speaking to black folks, but it’s also asking white folks to listen. It doesn’t really give them a space to express, because I don’t think that’s the place for that.
Your character, Gary, is kind of a pressure cooker. There’s something building within him, until he finally has his moment in Act II, where he monologues in group therapy and shouts, ‘Motherfucker, I am the prize!’ at his boyfriend, Dustin. The reaction in the audience on the night I saw the play was raucous. Was that cathartic? Over the course of a year, delivering that line night after night, how did it evolve? And how did you perceive the audience’s reactions evolving to that monologue over time?
Because of the use of the word “motherfucker,” I think when I initially read it, it felt either like anger or triumph. But in doing it over that year, I realize that it was all of it in that one line. That is the center of that character’s journey. I think there is pain in that, I think there is triumph in that, for sure. There is sadness in forgetting that you are a prize. The more I acknowledged that it wasn’t one thing, that it contained so much, I had more and more people coming up and saying, “I so identify with that.” Not just black folks. A lot of queer men would come up to me and talk about that moment. Letting it all be there, people got to draw their own meaning and connection to it. It felt more effective on a wider scale. He’s not just angry. And also, as a black person, you’re really conscious of playing an angry black person, you know? But it felt appropriate to give him power and pain.
That idea of power reminds me that, going back to Act I, Gary is in a different position than the other two black characters going through this “slave play” therapy. Gary’s white partner, Dustin, is technically beneath him in terms of the power structure, since Gary is an overseer and Dustin is an indentured servant—a real-life dynamic that not many people are aware of. Gary is also the only character who successfully completes the “therapy” too (he is the only one who climaxes). How did you strike the balance of Gary having power over Dustin in Act I during their “slave play” therapy, only to have it revoked again in Act II when he’s back in the realm of the real world?
It’s layered. Also, it helped me to work backward and think, Okay, if what he needs is to be the dom in this play, then it let me know what the dynamic of their relationship actually is. If he’s not feeling that, then Dustin is probably not creating that space. And that’s completely evidenced in Act II, where Dustin is sort of just running rampant. But there was something so juicy for me as an actor, that my task was to play a character who’s playing a character who wants to feel powerful and sexy and dominant. When there are those layers, I can just go a thousand percent, and there was something really juicy about that for me.
In S&M play, the sub is technically the one with the power, but I did like being the only black dom. And also being a queer man and being the only black dom—in the black community generally, you don’t really associate power with queer men, on a stereotypical level. It felt really yummy to be able to assume that power.
When people like Rihanna, whose song “Work” is a key element of the play, started showing up to see Slave Play, did that affect your performance at all?
It didn’t at all. I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to know if someone’s in the audience. The way I built my performance, I made sure that my points of contact and visual targets were not directly at the audience. Those things can throw me off, and they matter to me.
What was the song that Gary keeps hearing in his head?
“Multi-Love,” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
How did that idea of music or sonic repetition playing inside of someone’s mind in a traumatic moment end up in the play, and how did you, as an actor, conceptualize what that would do to a person like Gary?
There are aspects of the psychology part of this that are real and there are aspects that are not real. Musical-obsessive disorder is not real. But that is the genius of Jeremy. I was like, “That must be a real thing,” and he was like, “No, that’s made up.” But I do feel like musical-obsessive disorder exists on some level! I experience this thing where an anxiety or an association will happen and I will hear a song.
You mentioned leaving the play at night and walking into the same dynamics that you had just satirized onstage. That really resonated with me, and made me re-examine my own relationships, both romantic and platonic, with white people. Did doing this play cause any fallout in your personal life?
A little bit. But nothing major. Mostly a shift in my perception of myself and that relationship. I think it just became about asking for what I needed inside of those relationships. The ones that were able to give, gave. And the ones that weren’t, those relationships fell to the wayside. There is something about these characters taking up space that I realized I needed to bring into my life. That’s a life lesson I took away from this play.
What does it mean for you to take up space on an institutional level? Like many institutions, most of the people at the top on Broadway are white men.
For sure. I felt really proud to be standing in front of a show that was saying: “We have to do something different.” I think theater specifically can be very self-congratulatory. I felt really, really proud to be part of a show that was, in real time, doing something about changing the demographic of the audience, about telling this specific story.
Has your family seen the play?
My sisters have seen it, yeah.
What did they think?
They…they were rocked. I mean, we still talk about it. They were also really appreciative in that so much was articulated for them that they had not been able to articulate for themselves. Part of the reason I made sure it was my sisters and my cousin who were there for opening night is that this play centers on black women. I wanted to be surrounded by black women on that night. I wanted to celebrate them. For me, the way I started to understand the world was through black femininity.
It’s such a physical performance, too. How harsh was that on your body? Were there any physical or mental exercises you did to separate yourself from Gary?
I lifted a lot of weights. That’s not something I love, necessarily, but there was something about that. It feels like an aggressive space, and it felt like a container that I could put that sort of pain into. Just lots of expelling. I don’t like to wear headphones, I like to listen to my breath at the gym. So it just helped to get the centering breath as well. I also took a lavender epsom salt bath like three times a week. [Laughs.]
You’ve done a few films and some TV, but you just had a movie called Worth premiere at Sundance. What’s next for you on that horizon, in the film world?
I am really excited to see what Worth does. I’m really excited about moving into the film and TV space, specifically because I feel like what Jeremy is concerned with onstage is also filtering into that world. You have something coming out like Antebellum, you have Get Out, you have these things that are about reimagining our relationship to race and blackness. I would love to be a part of those works, whether that’s on TV or in film. I’m also interested in queer characters. Not exclusively, but I do feel like we’re reimagining what queer people look like in that medium, and I want to be a part of that too.