Getting To Know Acclaimed SLAVE PLAY Author, Jeremy O. Harris
This season, the controversial work Slave Play hits the mainstream with a limited run at Broadway's Golden Theatre.
The play arrives on Broadway after a wave of internet-fueled controversy engulfed its acclaimed off-Broadway debut at New York Theatre Workshop last season.
At the center of this feather-ruffling new work is young playwright, Jeremy O. Harris, a Yale alumni who made his professional debut with the play which premiered before the playwright had graduated from the university's famed Drama Department.
Heralded as "The queer black savior the theater world needs." by Out magazine and the youngest black male playwright ever produced on Broadway, Harris' story begins in Martinsville, Virginia, where his family settled after a transient childhood necessitated by his father's military career. After his parents' marriage ended when Jeremy was eleven, Harris was mainly raised by his single mother, a hairdresser who instilled his love of expressive hairstyles and cutting-edge fashion- a trademark now closely associated with Harris.
A voracious reader, Jeremy devoured the works of James Baldwin and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors as a means of understanding the history of theatre as well as the world around him. Harris used his developing intellect as a shield from bullying throughout his youth.
After graduating high school, Harris studied acting for a year at DePaul University before being cut from the program. He briefly studied poetry at the school before dropping out altogether to pursue acting in Chicago's famous theatre community.
His path then took him to Los Angeles, where a thriving social life in the creative scene led to a friendship with Isabella Summers of the band Florence and the Machine, who agreed to compose music for Harris' work should he ever decide to write a play.
The result of this offer was Harris' first work, Xander Xyst, Dragon One, a piece of maximalist storytelling which centers on a straight porn star out on a Grindr date, and utilized a Greek chorus to represent the many voices of internet, as well as a gospel choir. Making its debut at Ars Nova ANT Fest 2017, the piece led to a workshop of another of Jeremy's plays, Daddy, at the esteemed MacDowell Colony. Harris used the piece as his submission to the Yale School of Drama.
In the admissions process, Harris first pitched the premise for Slave Play, leading to a 2017 campus production, whose reception hinted at the larger controversy to come and earned Harris the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award as well as the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award at the 2018 American College Theater Festival. From there, New York Theatre Workshop hosted a reading of Slave Play, before programming it into their season.
That year, Harris was also awarded the 2018 Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, given by the Vineyard Theatre, whose prize included a residency with the company. In 2019, The New Group and Vineyard co-produced a revised version of, Daddy, starring Cumming as an older art collector who falls into a twisted relationship with a young black artist.
Amidst Slave Play's Broadway debut, Harris' star is rising not only in the theatre world, but in Hollywood as well. He is a consultant on the HBO teen drama, Euphoria, and recently completed work as co-author on the screenplay for the forthcoming film Zola, an adaptation of a real-life viral Twitter thread.
In 2019, Queerty named him one of the Pride50, a group of "trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people."
With a knack for street style, social critique, and progressive thinking, Jeremy challenges norms both onstage and off.
With a push for audience diversity and ticket affordability for Slave Play's Broadway run, Harris is using the opportunity to expand the conversation surrounding audience demographics and provide access to communities that are under-served by the current system.
After organizing an all-black performance of the show, Harris told The Daily Beast, "After years of being the only black person in an audience of white faces...it felt like a corrective might be in order to show the potentialities of the space."
His progressive views extend to audience behavior as well. When controversy arose after the singer Rihanna was spotted arriving late and texting the author during a performance of Slave Play, Harris had a response vastly different from most authors where the issue of phone use in the theatre is concerned
"The patron saint of the play I wrote is literally a pop star, fashion icon, and Demi-goddess named Rihanna. When Dionysus is coming you hold the curtain....There's no right or wrong way to watch the theatre." he tweeted.
Of the challenge the work poses to audiences of all races, Harris insists that he had no interest in writing another history play that lets its spectators off the hook in the present day.
"I wanted everyone in the audience to recognize how close that history is to our current illness," Harris told The Daily Beast, "Growing up in Virginia and moving to the North, slavery has always been a fact to me. It wasn't a history that was far away from me. Like Kaneisha in the play, I was taken to plantations all the time. It was wholly part of our childhood. It was not lost on me that it was only five generations away. I want the play to take people to a place where they have to wrestle and reckon with this history."
In a foreword to the play, titled Notes On Your Discomfort, Harris writes: "This might hurt. This could prod open regrets and secrets, and what you find could be shock. But there's nothing in Slave Play that you don't already know."
With such an exciting start to his career, there is no telling where the years will take this revolutionary new voice. But if his future works are as affecting, challenging, and game changing as the one currently in previews on Broadway, it certainly won't be anywhere conventional.