How Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Seduced Madonna, Tony Kushner, and Audiences Everywhere

Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Jeremy O. Harris doesn’t mind talking about critics; he seems to relish it. Whereas most of his peers find the topic as appealing as venereal disease, Harris dives in with humor, context, and optimism. Maybe it’s because he’s had critical success, or maybe, as a student (in his third year at Yale School of Drama), he understands the value of a vibrant critical ecology. He may even be the rare writer who improves that ecology. Harris recently made a huge splash at New York Theatre Workshop with Slave Play, a taboo-shredding comedy that exploded myths about interracial sex through brainy theory and role-play. Word of mouth was insane. Madonna snuck into a performance; Tony Kushner gave it a standing ovation. Slave Play was at once sexy, eerie, and deeply unsettling.
jeremy o harris Opening Night of Slave Play. / Photo courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop/Facebook
Harris is ready to plunge us again into the deep end with “Daddy”another piece on the erotics of race, this time centering on an affair between a young black artist (Ronald Peet) and the wealthy, older art collector (Alan Cumming) who wants to possess him. A play about daddy issues and father figures (the 1987 George Michael song figures heavily), the show comes armed with warnings of nudity and extreme sexual situations. Harris phoned What Should We Do en route to rehearsal for the New Group/Vineyard Theatre production, which runs through March 31 at Pershing Square Signature Theatre. What Should We Do: The set for “Daddy” features a real pool. Have you taken a dip yet? Jeremy O. Harris: The first day we got the pool, my director, Danya Taymor, and half the cast got in. I was supposed to, but I didn’t bring a swimsuit. There’s a lot of nudity in the play, and I was like: Maybe I’ll just go in naked, so everyone knows I’m cool with being nude, too. Then I was like, Is that like a #MeToo? Is that not OK? WSWD: Could be scandalous. Harris: Yeah. I thought, this is probably an inappropriate action that could come back in a real way. But I will be getting in at some point before the run is over. WSWD: You wrote “Daddy” before Slave Play, and it got you into grad school at Yale. Have you been tweaking it for the world premiere? Harris: I’m trying to maintain it and not change it, actually. I’m trying to hold myself accountable to the choices I was making when I was 25. The more I lean into who that person was, the more the play becomes beautiful to me. Something I’ve always been very good at is structure. I think that’s from having been a critic and having read a lot of plays. I’ve always been excited about deconstructing things and then building them in new ways. In the case of “Daddy,” I was looking at French melodrama, mining all the tropes of that genre. WSWD: I feel like melodrama is a term that people use loosely. How do you define it? Harris: Well, melodrama is a structure. And also a genre. I think of it as a play that moves with the internal life on the outside. In a melodrama we see, very clearly, someone’s internal journey, and usually the journey is put onto a body. In my play, the person whose internal journey we’re putting on their body and watching them suffer is Franklin. WSWD: For the reader: He’s the young, black artist having an affair with a white art collector. Harris: Right. Another genre thing about melodrama is that there is always a villain. I think it’s going to be really fun for the audience to find which villain gets unmasked in this play. Because that’s where the real subversion and deconstruction is happening. Looking at how we can use the suffering body and the villain in new and exciting ways to tell stories about black interiority, black heroism, black antiheroism—what it means to be a black body engaging white supremacy.

The thing that I want to see more of in general is more critics of color, more women, but also just more critics.

WSWD: You say melodrama is about internal life put on the body. Your play has lots of sex, drugs, nudity. Are you exploring genre overlap between, say, porn and melodrama? Harris: Maybe. One of the things that I love about melodrama is that so much of the action relies on voyeurism. And the same is true in porn. A melodrama doesn’t function if there isn’t someone hiding in a corner and listening. And then revealing that they’ve been hiding and listening at some point. And porn doesn’t function if someone else isn’t watching it somewhere else. That was actually a function of early porn, especially cinematic porn. There would usually be someone having a private moment by themselves, and a voyeur is looking on, and they get caught looking. Then the sex scheme happens. WSWD: When you’re not in Los Angeles or studying at Yale, what are your favorite things to do in New York? Harris: I’m really loving dinner. When I lived in Chicago as an undergrad, I started discovering fine dining. My best friend and I would save money and go out to one highly rated new restaurant every month. New York has so many great restaurants. I have a lot of friends coming into town who want to take me out to dinner. I spend most of my time going out to dinner, having a good glass of wine. There’s a writer who wrote a book that I love. He saw Slave Play and really liked it, and he and I went to this new restaurant near my apartment called Aska. A Scandinavian restaurant. There’s a limited tasting menu. Really good.
jeremy o harris Photo by Charlie Bennet/Courtesy of Aska
WSWD: Slave Play got rave reviews from white critics—like The New York Times’s Jesse Green—and also critics of color, like Soraya McDonald of The Undefeated. Many artists and journalists say there aren’t enough critics of color. Is there a problem? Harris: Criticism, generally, has been the province of white men. Historically, there has been a mismanagement of opportunity. It needs to be recognized and dealt with. That being said, I don’t know that I personally subscribe to a logic that says that someone’s identity can stop their critical faculties. I do think that their biases can inform those critical faculties. I think biases come in a lot of colors and a lot of genders. The thing that I want to see more of in general is more critics of color, more women, but also just more critics. WSWD: An artist who wants more critics?! Harris: It’s important to remember that some of the artists who have had the hardest time getting recognition, who were underrepresented, in oppressed spaces, have had champions who were of a different race. That history is important for us to remember. The history of black critics and black criticism and black critical trends is something that I’m really obsessed with. Which writers, particularly in the 1990s, weren’t getting written about? Literally weren’t getting written about in black publications, but were getting lauded in white publications? The person who comes to mind is Suzan-Lori Parks, right? A lot of the most positive, early writing about her was by white critics.

I promise you, if you have seven black critics sit down to see Fairview, Sugar in Our Wounds, and Pass Over, they’re all going to say a different one was the best one.

WSWD: So things have changed, but we still have a way to go? Harris: It’s a really complicated history. We have to create more spaces, invite underrepresented voices to the table, so that we can have a diverse and exciting critical landscape. The most exciting thing for me is that my play had enough reach that writers from a lot of different publications got to write about it. I had five black critics say five very different black things about my play. Some loved it. Some didn’t love it. That’s rare. People keep thinking: They hire one black critic who will finally have a black voice on the matters of black theater in America. I promise you, if you have seven black critics sit down to see Fairview, Sugar in Our Wounds, and Pass Over, they’re all going to say a different one was the best one.
jeremy o harris Photo courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris/Facebook
WSWD: And that’s healthy. Harris: It’s really healthy. I also think that there could be a lot learned from black critics writing about white plays, like Joshua Harmon’s Admissions. Having black and brown people writing about more of these white plays would be really, really important. That’s another place where we are really fucking up the critical discourse. When we do hire writers of color, we tend to ghettoize them and only use their critical faculties to talk about my work or the work of Dominique Morisseau or Lynn Nottage. WSWD: Would you ever write a play about these specific issues? Harris: There’s a play called Trouble in Mind, written by Alice Childress. It was supposed to be the first play by a black woman on Broadway, and it didn’t go. That play was dissecting these subjects in 1955. If people want to start that conversation faster, they can do it by putting on a revival of Trouble in Mind instead of another revival of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. The short time I’ve been in New York, I have seen three All My Sons and three [stagings of] Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a really long play. I don’t know why people are invested in doing that play over and over again—outside of the fact that it’s a very well-written long play. But there’s a lot of well-written plays by people of color that haven’t been getting done, that are speaking to our current moment with more fire and heft. WSWD: New plays by writers of color are being done—at least off-Broadway. Quite a few. Harris: A thing that cannot be stated enough is that the gatekeepers of our city are doing you guys—critics—a disservice. Yes, right now they’re trying to produce every young, black, queer, brown, underrepresented voice. Every artistic director is hurrying to get them on their stages. And while that’s really healthy and great, we need more people who are doing the same thing with our lost gems of the American canon. Because that helps everyone else see the lineage of what we’re making. If more people knew about this other Alice Childress play, Wedding Band, we could have had a richer conversation, critically, about what Slave Play is doing, and what history it’s a part of. But right now, people can’t grab onto that as readily as they can grab onto a reference to a writer writing like Lanford Wilson. Or writing like William Inge. These things would help the critical landscape in a huge, specific way.

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