Jeremy O. Harris, Before and After “Slave Play”

When the first coronavirus lockdowns went into effect, and the global mood was a moan of quiet agitation and fear, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris was living in a two-story apartment in London. He had travelled there for a production of his play “Daddy,” about a young Black artist who has fallen under the thrall of an older white man. “Daddy” had débuted, Off Broadway, a year before, and was set to open at the Almeida Theatre at the end of March, 2020; it would have been Harris’s first professional opening overseas. But the show didn’t open, and Harris stayed stranded in London for weeks, then, eventually, for months.

Sad about the play and scared about the world, he passed the first few weeks not writing—although many deadlines, constant companions in his life, hovered at the peripheries of his mind. Since high school, Harris has used the late night and earliest morning as a time to work and party and talk about art with friends; now he binged anime and listened to Fiona Apple and started reading Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider,” which he’d always meant to get to. As the weeks wore on, he tired of his vampirism. “I decided that I wanted to see the sun more often,” he said one April morning, as streams of light made bright rectangles on the apartment walls. Waking up at normal hours meant dealing with pedestrian annoyances. He’d begun ordering coffee from a nearby café, and twice in a row, although he ordered it black, it was delivered with milk. “It’s, like, everyone’s watching ‘The Plot Against America,’ ” he said, referring to the HBO miniseries based on the novel by Philip Roth, “and this feels very much like ‘The Plot Against Jeremy.’ ”

Harris is very tall and very thin, and handles his body with improvised precision, formality within informality, like a dancer on an off day at the mall. A gesture begun in his shoulder always ends at the tips of his fingers. When he gropes for thoughts between sentences, he makes shapes in the air with his hands. He has clear cedar skin and a pert, wide mouth. His eyes are sedate and low-lidded when he’s in a neutral mood, but they open wide when he tells a story or expresses an urgent (often dissenting) opinion. Stories sometimes incite him to stand up and pantomime crucial passages of action. His first dream, before writing, was to act.

When the third coffee came, finally correct, he sat on a couch by a window and lit a cigarette. Lots of people he knew were smoking again, he said, despite the worldwide march of a deadly respiratory disease: “Our lungs could fail us at any moment, and we’re just, like, you know, fuck it.”

Coffee and an American Spirit, white light through the window—his instinct about waking with the sun had been borne out. The apartment was pleasant in the daytime. On one wall was a large abstract painting in russets and burgundies and bright lipstick shades. Upstairs was a bedroom that he shared with his newish boyfriend, Arvand Khosravi, a film and television executive. At the top of the staircase was a glass door leading out to a shallow ledge on the roof, where Harris often went to film TikTok videos—mostly poppy, fast-paced riffs on scenes from classic plays—which he had been posting almost daily. In one, titled “Titus Andronicus Act V,” he lip-synchs dialogue from the TV show “Catfish,” in four different costumes; it’s nine seconds long.

Harris did the TikToks for fun; they were, for weeks, his sole avenue of creative expression. But they were also, not so subtly, a dig at the profession through which he had gained his recent fame. Rooted in the history and the canonical repertoire of theatre, but yoked dramaturgically to hyper-current rhythms and attitudes and styles, the TikToks showed that Harris could do what the big arts institutions couldn’t—keep up. While they floundered, he figured, the show would go on from his phone. He had changed the bio on his frequently updated Twitter account to a kind of epitaph for the theatre: “I spent my 20s devoted to a craft in a coma.”

Stages everywhere were dark; theatre companies and nonprofits were scrambling. In both their public statements and their private conversations with playwrights, they projected blithe optimism, as though their operations would be up and running by summer’s end.

“Like, no, guys!” Harris said, describing his frustration. “We have to reinvent this or re-create this, or else it’s going to be even more detrimental to artists in six months, when you guys have wasted your resources trying to go the normal way.” “Daddy” was still in British limbo, and he had another play, “A Boy’s Company Presents: ‘Tell Me If I’m Hurting You’ ”—his version of a Jacobean revenge drama, based on a particularly bad breakup—scheduled to début in May, at Playwrights Horizons, in New York. Nobody would officially admit—or, perhaps, allow themselves to believe—that the upcoming seasons wouldn’t happen, but Harris was already mourning the new play, just as he was mourning “Daddy.”

His ire notwithstanding, thinking and talking about the failures of his industry seemed to energize him—almost to soothe him—and his online complaints soon came to echo a wider mood. As the initial shock of the pandemic gave way to a reëvaluation of racial and other societal arrangements, Harris became a kind of spokesman for the long-standing and suddenly stark unrest felt by his fellow-artists. It was a moment well suited to Harris’s natural, if somewhat paradoxical, penchant for institutional critique. A happy disrupter of genteel silences, he has nonetheless, however rockily, charted a professional and personal path through some of the entertainment world’s most staid establishment outposts: the Yale School of Drama; Gucci, for which he does modelling; various Hollywood-adjacent neighborhoods in Los Angeles; and now, most visibly, the Great White Way. The previous fall, “Slave Play,” the first of Harris’s works to be staged in New York, had transferred to the Golden Theatre, on Broadway, after an extended run at the venerable New York Theatre Workshop, downtown.

“Slave Play” tells the story of three interracial couples undergoing “antebellum sexual-performance therapy,” in order, presumably, to mend the edges of their relationships, which have been frayed by race. In the first act, before the audience is in on the premise, the couples—dressed in nineteenth-century garb, as masters and slaves—engage in various kinky sexual scenarios calibrated to set off trip wires in race- and sex-sensitive American minds. The second act, in which the actual therapy takes place, is straightforwardly funny. The third is a surreal, largely horrifying duet between one of the couples, a Black woman and her white husband. Over and over, “Slave Play” calls into question the true parameters of sexual consent and tries to wring current-day catharsis from the brutal history of master-slave rape.

In some corners—including this magazine, in a review that I wrote—Harris was lauded for the wild rigor of his vision and the originality of his voice. And the play’s overwhelming success was the precondition for many of the luxuries he now enjoyed: the London flat, the European engagement, a two-year development deal that he had recently signed with HBO. At the same time, “Slave Play” was a kind of troll job, perversely aimed at unsettling and possibly enraging the various constituencies—racial, sexual, institutional, professional—to which he belonged. Harris must have known that the play would have this effect; he seemed to revel in the discursive mess it left in its wake. Even before the pandemic, he had earned a reputation as an enfant terrible, the kind of designation that is made possible only by way of proximity. You’ve got to be fairly close to the big house to even consider throwing stones.

“Something I’ve always wondered is when I’m going to develop the affected-Black-intellectual voice,” Harris said that summer, still stuck in London. He was reflecting on some of his favorite writers and artists of an older generation, and the way that their talk was often as effortfully stylized as their work. He’d been thinking about André Leon Talley, the fashion writer and editor whose high diction and baroque syntax became hallmarks of his style—and seemed, moreover, like a way of asserting his belonging in a largely white milieu. Talley, who died last year, was, like Harris, a tall, queer, highly verbal Black man from the South. His web of complex, sometimes tortured relationships with white co-workers, bosses, and benefactors was consonant with—and had possibly even influenced—the dynamics depicted in “Slave Play.” Harris is unabashed in his study of other artists’ personas. “I’m so interested in personal style, and personal relationships, and class—if not class ascension, then class association,” he said. “Just the lilt of certain people.”

Talk of that voice—I knew what Harris meant without having to ask—got me thinking, perhaps slightly defensively, of my own.

“You have it a little bit,” he said, confirming a fear I’d spoken aloud.

We agreed, though, that the voice of our rough age cohort—Harris is thirty-four—was particular. The sort of Black Millennial writer whom Harris had in mind was not someone who would deploy the suavely concatenated sentences of James Baldwin. Rather, this hypothetical thirtysomething, as eager to showcase pop-cultural with-it-ness and egalitarian humility as to display hard-won verbal acuity, would use locutions peppered with pointed “like”s and “um”s, plus a bit of vocal fry, for subtler tones of falsely self-deprecating color: a Valley Girl with an advanced degree.

“As far as roommates go hes fine—he just leaves deadly traps everywhere.”

“As far as roommates go, he’s fine—he just leaves deadly traps everywhere.”

Cartoon by Ellie Black

“I one hundred per cent know that I have a Valley Girl accent because of ‘Clueless,’ ” Harris said. “But also, partially, I think unconsciously, I did it so that my intellect wouldn’t be intimidating to everyone around me. This is a part of my plays that was also a part of growing up—I’ve always had to figure out how to translate stuff from the academy into language that my mom could understand, without asking her to take time from her life to read, like, Saidiya Hartman.” A dramaturgical note for “Slave Play” quoted both Hartman and Hortense Spillers, another Black feminist scholar, but the play itself takes Rihanna as its primary muse. “I had to bring my learning into a different space of understanding, which is why it’s so much more fun for me to write plays that are based in theory than it is for me to go, ‘And then Jonathan wanted to get a divorce from Becca,’ or things like that.”

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