Is there a “correct” way to watch a play? Not according to Jeremy O. Harris, Broadway‘s current enfant terrible.
His controversial Slave Play—about three couples engaging in a form of couples therapy called “race play”—ran off-Broadway last year and was picked up for Broadway after a sold-out extended run. Opening night, which coincided with the end of New York Fashion Week, culminated with a Telfar-sponsored after party that brought out everyone from Hari Nef and Moses Sumney to Rowan Blanchard and Lily-Rose Depp.
Understandably, given all the excitement, Harris has been on something of a social media blitz lately. (And why shouldn’t he? It’s not every day that a queer black man gets to take his play to Broadway and produce this magnitude of buzz.) If the opening night after-party wasn’t enough of a scene for you, check out his Twitter or Instagram for a visual archive of the A-listers—including Lucas Hedges and Gus Van Sant—who have recently been in the audience.
However, despite the positive response from fellow theatergoers who spotted Rihanna in the audience, some salty tweeters took issue with the fact that Harris held the curtain for his “idol” after she texted him to say she was running late. (The two met when he profiled her for T Magazine and revealed some of the first details about Fenty, her luxury fashion line.) Adding insult to injury, according to some sticklers for theater etiquette, was the fact that Rihanna dared to text Harris during the play. And—horror of horrors—he responded!
Harris, however, wasn’t about to apologize. Though both theatergoers and performers have taken issue with phones in the audience in the past—Patti LuPone once grabbed an audience member’s phone out of their hands when she saw that little blue light—Harris thinks the whole drama is ridiculous. He tweeted, “FYI: miss me w tweets chastising anyone in my audience for using a phone to send a text. I’ve seen too many ‘general audience members’ do it over the last decade to care about it. I’m more interested in theatre evolving and maybe phones are part of that evolution? Who knows.”
And maybe the playwright has a point. It is true that many theaters are inflexible. And, as for holding the curtain, in all honestly, if you were—lets say— hosting a dinner party and Rihanna texted to tell you she was running a few minutes behind, wouldn’t you be willing to hold the meal for just a bit?
But really, this discourse about holding a curtain for Rihanna and letting her have the privilege to text during a performance just opens up a larger conversation about policing behavior in a historically white and wealthy space, the (often racially) coded language surrounding the rules, and why it turns into such a big deal when certain people (but not others) break them. “I wonder how many ppl in #theatrenerd twitter would have thought my behavior during @willarbery’s play today was ‘disrespectful’ because I WAS LIVING!!,” Harris tweeted, before adding, “Often, me expressing that in the full bodied ways I was socialized to in the south have made me the ire of other patrons.”
Shouldn’t going to the theater be at least a little bit of fun? And isn’t it meant to provoke emotional reactions, be they expressed out loud or over text? “I watch plays like I’m coaching a sports team or sitting in a church….so when I see someone like Zoe Winters bodying an aria of a monologue like a woman possessed I will damn near jump out of my seat! (Like both my mother and I did watching @larryowenslive last month),” Harris went on.
When you really look at theater rules, they seem pretty arbitrary—not to mention inconsistently enforced. As Harris said, “It’s not bad behavior to sing along during a musical if the spirit possess you to. Theatre was literally made to be a party not a funeral.”