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Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of SLAVE PLAY on Broadway?

Slave Play

Tonight is the official opening for Slave Play, the acclaimed new play by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O'Hara, at Broadway's Golden Theatre.

The cast for Slave Play features Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, and Paul Alexander Nolan. The cast is being understudied by Eboni Flowers, Thomas Keegan, Jakeem Dante Powell, and Elizabeth Stahlmann.

The Old South lives on at the MacGregor Plantation - in the breeze, in the cotton fields...and in the crack of the whip. It's an antebellum fever-dream, where fear and desire entwine in the looming shadow of the Master's House. Jim trembles as Kaneisha handles melons in the cottage, Alana perspires in time with the plucking of Phillip's fiddle in the boudoir, while Dustin cowers at the heel of Gary's big, black boot in the barn. Nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems.

Let's see what the critics are saying...

Jesse Green, The New York Times: Uptown, his staging has grown broader and funnier but no less trenchant in the 800-seat Golden than it was in a space one-quarter the size; the continuous embroidering of marvelous detail fills any gaps that might have opened in the expansion. (Watch Phillip take refuge under his hoodie when he gets overwhelmed, or Alana scramble after her notebook as if it might protect her from what she's learning.) The returning cast - especially Mr. Cusati-Moyer as the boyfriend who pathetically insists he is not as white as he looks - has likewise amped up the emotional volume; they have a bigger house to bring down. Their performances make that of the only new cast member - Ms. Kalukango - even more distinct and grave by comparison. As Kaneisha becomes the center of the play's argument, you see her struggle to express herself playing out on her face before she has the words. When the words do come, they are all the more devastating.

Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: But one point must be made specifically and clearly. Slave Play ventures into subject matter the likes of which this playgoer has never seen presented on Broadway, and does so in a bold, even outlandish manner that should be admired and welcomed. This older straight white critic won't claim to get everything the 30-year-old gay African-American playwright is saying, but if voices like his -- those that have long been nurtured and developed by non-profit Off-Broadway -- can be commercially accepted on Broadway, the fabled boulevard can advance just a little closer to truly being the artistic center of American theatre.

Adam Feldman, Time Out: Brash, smart and gleefully confrontational, this is the kind of show that starts arguments. It starts on a perverse antebellum plantation, but as it moves forward, in three very different acts that successively reframe what we have seen before them, it keeps you off balance; even afterward, you may feel staggered. As I wrote of its incarnation at New York Theatre Workshop, "Slave Play is funny, perceptive, probing and, at times, disturbingly sexy. It snaps like a whip, and its aim is often outward." Whatever you think it is, it's almost certainly not what you think.

Steven Suskin, New York Stage Review: Uncomfortable theater, yes; it's impossible for a play called Slave Play, in this day and age, to be-well-comfortable. But Harris, already acclaimed as an important new voice in the American drama, is on to something here. Modernish audiences are likely to quickly embrace this important new play. Others might well find it uncomfortable, but attention should and need be paid.

Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: Because Slave Play-sharply and smartly directed by Robert O'Hara-is a show that needs to be processed. Admittedly, that is a terribly clinical way to put it. "Can you stop saying processing?" yells one character, Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan). "We aren't computers. My emotions aren't materials." But fair warning: As the program note by poet-novelist Morgan Parker begins, "This might hurt."

Jeremy Gerard, Theater News Online: Slave Play, by contrast, is the work of a promising satirist whose cleverness thus far trumps his dramaturgy. I was more taken with Daddy, the other Harris work staged off-Broadway last season. Most of my colleagues hated that one, but its unforgiving exposure of another race-charged theme - it concerned a wealthy white art patron and the impressionable young black artist who becomes his lover - more assured and more dangerous than this work. Slave Play earns its laughs, but not its sorrow.

Daily News: But "Slave Play," which runs over two hours in one act, is under no obligation to make those points. It is the work of a major new voice in the American theater, a fervent, assured, hyper-articulate young moralist seeking acknowledgement of and reparations for, white supremacy, and who is utterly disinclined to dispense false hope to those who think "I love you" makes good on anything.

Diane Snyder, Telegraph: Sometimes confounding and excessive, Slave Play is also funny and intelligently provocative as it examines the lingering impact of slavery through the distress and desires of characters who aren't what they first seem.

Tim Teeman, Daily Beast: On Broadway, necessarily, the play is bigger in every way; to this critic, some things are gained, others are lost in the increase in this scale. The performances are larger and broader, particularly in the deliberately off-kilter theatrics of the play's first segment. But the new, spectacle-sized aspect of Slave Play on Broadway also muffles some its most chilling moments and some of its most disturbing tableaux.

Peter Marks, Washington Post: It's in that persuasive finale, devoted to the tormented exasperation of Kalukango's sublimely rendered Kaneisha, that we get the stunning truth of what her character is after - and that only Nolan's expertly, intuitively constructed Jim can help her through. It is, in a cosmic sense, what "Slave Play" is after, too. I cannot reveal to you what that catharsis is. I can just tell you that "Slave Play" delivered one to me - and in the process opened my eyes and ears more fully, and gratefully.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: Some will balk at the grim finality with which Harris stomps on the hope of finding sexual harmony in interracial relationships - or by extension, societal balance in the uneasy intersection of black and white America. Whether or not you agree, there's unquestionably something raw and unsettling in the playwright's position that black identity can never be wholly separated from historical oppression. The play appears to suggest that even the most liberal white perspective, on the other hand, tends to fall back on the convenient escape of not seeing race, rather than being mindful of the painful legacy of subjugation.

Roma Torre, NY1: It's a shocker alright, and provocatively compelling, many would say. And while I'm happy to see new works by young playwrights challenge the status quo, especially when performed so brilliantly as "Slave Play" is...this one is dramatically quite a mess. Provocative? Yes. An intriguing premise? Yes. Important theatre? No, at least not yet.

Christopher Kelly, The eight-member cast, all but one of whom (Kalukango) originated their roles off-Broadway, is fearless in anatomizing a group of very complicated people (special note to Nolan, playing arguably the most emotionally and physically exposed character, and Ato-Blankson-Wood, who serves up an anguished portrait of a queer black man trying to come into his own). The set design, by Clint Ramos, is at once simple and absolutely arresting, with a wall of mirrors forcing the audience to literally see themselves in these proceedings. The director, Robert O'Hara, handles this incendiary material with just the right mixture of ferocity and grace, periodically nudging the drama towards chaos, but then reeling it right back in.

Greg Evans, Deadline: And then Harris and his simpatico director Robert O'Hara - near miraculously blending their talents to pull off an incendiary work that could go wrong in any single minute of its intermission-less two hours at the Golden Theatre, where it opens tonight - add yet another meaning to the title.

Thom Geier, The Wrap: Despite its flaws, "Slave Play" announces the arrival of a bold and challenging new voice in theater. And there's no doubt that Harris has the talent to produce a masterpiece (or five). He also has that rarer quality, drive. In the words of his muse, he is willing to "work work work work work."

Sara Holdren, Vulture: It leaves you in an ongoing feedback loop inside your own brain. And, at least for me, doing a lot of second-guessing of my own impulses. Even feeling semi-paralyzed. This time around, I find myself trying to work through this visceral feeling of isolation just as much as I'm working through the play itself. I think I'm left wondering: Does this play prescribe something about how to go forward as a human being in the world with other human beings? Or does it avoid prescription?

Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post: With all that time for development, most of the characters, such as they are, remain vague and archetypal. There's little change from start to finish, and therefore no investment from us. For better or worse, "Slave Play" is the sort of show you see to say you've seen it.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Jeremy O. Harris' broad send-up of race and sex in America, "Slave Play," isn't outrageously funny. But it does have its funny moments - and it certainly is outrageous. In the very first scenes, we're confronted with three vignettes of seduction and copulation. For starters, a slave named Kaneisha (the abundantly talented Joaquina Kalukango) enthusiastically seduces Massa Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), who prefers to be called Mista Jim, by throwing herself on the cabin floor and twerking.

David Cote, Observer: Slave Play's code-switching, tone-shifting framework is the best thing about it-in addition to its hard-working, appealing cast and O'Hara's sly, comical direction. The actual line-to-line writing, while animated and playful, contains off-notes and lapses that do stick out. In the opening scene, Jim's plantation owner confuses a cantaloupe for a watermelon, which is played for a laugh, but really, how many people couldn't tell the difference? The long therapy scene in the middle goes on far too long, and the explosive revelations between the couples seem designed more for hysterical outbursts than to deepen their solidity as people. This is the sort of play that expects you to believe that over several years, a mixed-race couple never or rarely discussed their personal histories or social issues. Which kind of means that Slave Play is about three shallow interracial couples who (may) break up, without anyone caring that much.

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