Jeremy O. Harris’ daring “Slave Play,” directed by Robert O’Hara, made the New York theater community stand up and take notice when it was performed off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop last year.
It got rave reviews from critics and angry criticism from the Black community with one woman trying to have the show shut down. Sold-out shows attracted theatergoers such as Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, and Scarlett Johansson.
Some in Black America were outraged about making a play about rape and sexual assault between slavemaster and slave.
Ashley B started a petition to shut down the play after attending a show. So far, 5,899 have signed toward the 7,500 goal. “This was one of the most disrespectful displays of anti-Black sentiment disguised as art that I have ever seen,” the petitioner wrote on Change.org. “As a Black woman I was terribly offended and traumatized by the graphic imagery mixed with laughter from a predominantly white audience …
” … Art, in any form, can not and should not be separated from its historical context. Hearing the crack of the whip in conjunction with the imagery and white audience members laughing sends chills up my spine as I write this.”
“Slave Play” is now in previews on Broadway and scheduled for an Oct. 6 debut with a limited 17-week engagement through Jan. 5, 2020. But even box office sales have been controversial. “In just six previews, the new drama brought in a gross of $306,668.00, filling the Golden Theatre to 98.57 percent capacity,” Broadway.com reported.
The New York Post reported that that the play may already be in trouble — even before opening. The Post ran a headline, ‘Slave Play’ may be provocative, but it sure isn’t selling tickets.
“Sources say the $3.5 million ‘Slave Play’ has sold only $800,000 worth of heavily discounted tickets and is on track to lose a substantial amount of money during previews,” The Post reported. “Its producers have reportedly been scouring Shubert Alley for money, though a spokesman says the show is fully capitalized. Rival producers say that unless there’s a boom at the box office, ‘Slave Play”’ could close before the end of its 17-week run.”
The New York Times reported that “Ticket sales were good, but not great.”
Forbes accused the New York Post of sloppy journalism: “Sloppy journalism is worth rebutting, especially when it discredits Black entrepreneurs and artists,” Forbes reported. “Among the Post’s inaccuracies were claims that the $3.9m show was struggling to raise money, while it has in fact been capitalized for weeks, with a waiting list of hopeful investors. It also claimed total sales are $800,000 when they’re well above $1 million. And the show has been wrapping $100,000 a day in advance sales since previews began. These are true facts, corroborated by multiple sources on the production team.”
“Slave Play” has been described as “a farcical consideration of the horrors of slavery and its effects on contemporary relationships.”
In an interview with The Root, playwright Harris talked about the therapeutic value of writing the play:
“I was really excited about making a play where it cost the same thing it cost you to go to your therapist; to look at some of the ways in which we shrink ourselves, we lacerate ourselves because of our entanglement with white supremacy.”
While the play was being applauded by theater critics, many in the Black community disagree.
“This display of psychosis should’ve never made it out of a therapist’s notes,” Context Media editor Torrance Walker tweeted. “There’s no way in hell a play about a holocaust victim twerking for an Auschwitz guard would make it to the Broadway stage. But they’ll mock our trauma.”
The play is supposed to be hard to process, Harris told The Root. “Robert O’Hara (director of ‘Slave Play’) says, ‘It should cost you something to come see a play called ‘Slave Play’, and that cost should be for everyone.'”
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What makes “Slave Play” so different than other offerings on Broadway is that the drama takes on race, sex, and slavery through the lives of three modern-day, interracial couples set against the backdrop of a Virginia plantation. Harris, the youngest Black male playwright on Broadway at the age of 30, wrote the play as a first-year student at Yale School of Drama.
“It’s really humbling and exciting that a work like this is going to Broadway, but it’s also raw,” he told The Guardian. “It’s a lot of different emotions for me because there’s a history on Broadway and I’m not really a part of it, or people like me aren’t really a part of it. You can probably count on your hand, on your right hand, the amount of Black queer men or women who have had successful Broadway careers.
“There’s definitely some energy happening…I don’t know that I can call it a sea change until it’s not a surprise that a young, Black and queer person is on Broadway and having a show that people want to see,” he added.
Dana Sanchez contributed to this report.
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