“Hi! It’s Jeremy O. Harris!” the playwright exclaims over the phone from London, where he’s doing auditions for a production of his play Daddy at the Almeida Theatre. “Oh hi,” I reply, as if I hadn’t been expecting his call, as if I hadn’t been trying to interview him for weeks, as if I had never heard of him. During our hour-long conversation, he refers again to “Jeremy O. Harris,” marking the distance between himself and how he’s been referred to in the New York theatre world and beyond.
He does his best to live up to Jeremy O. Harris, the referent, however unstable the stamp of the proper name. Even across the Atlantic, even over the phone, Harris, who turned thirty this June, gives off the exuberant energy of a movie star, which is what he wanted to be—“a gay Denzel Washington”—before he started writing. “I knew I was a good writer, but I always felt a lot of shame about it because I was cut from my drama school. They told me, ‘you obviously want to be a writer’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to be a writer. I want to be an actor. I am Julianne Moore!’” he drawls.
Daddy, as well as Harris’s other projects—a television series in development, a couple small acting roles, Water Sports: Or Insignificant White Boys which will be published as a book by 53rd State Press—have been overwhelmed by the intense critical reaction to Broadway’s Slave Play, a play he wrote in 2017 at the Yale School of Drama which stages interracial couples undergoing what is called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. “Another thing that I got punished for was that I was honest with everyone about the chronology of my writing and my writing process, and I let a lot of people into the fact that I wrote Daddy and then I wrote Slave Play. Even if you listened to the second Lana Del Rey album and then you listened to the first one, you would obviously notate growth, but you would be like, obviously, this is so much better because it’s second.” Is Jeremy O. Harris getting punished? And, since he sees all his plays as having to do with “black and white entanglement,” perhaps another question is: are we?
What Harris calls the “bigness” of Slave Play has elsewhere been called “daring” (The New York Times), “controversial” (Teen Vogue) and “anti-black” (a Change.org petition); all the while he is also being touted as pushing the boundaries of a white theatre scene obsessed with decorum and propriety. Slave Play does what its title suggests— it plays with slavery through a psychoanalytic lens. “This is supposed to be adapting all of my favorite theory into accessible dramaturgy,” he says, citing Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton, Christina Sharpe and L.H. Stallings. Turning to the psychic life of slavery and the erotic life of blackness, Harris anticipates his critics, many of whom wonder whether the play was “for white people.” What does it mean that this is his most popular play? What does it say of us?
After musician Kelela told him she wanted to see the play with an all-black audience, Harris made it happen with one September night that only black artists, writers and students were invited to—a potential PR disaster in a conservative theatre world, a move he likens to Rick James being in “that white man’s house, saying ‘fuck your couch.’” With “Black Out,” the shimmer no longer belonged to Jeremy O. Harris but to the crowd, a kind of black choreography that Harris could not have premeditated. There we were, New York City’s black literati (Wallace Thurman would have used another word) with our eyes on a stage of mirrors, punctuated by Rihanna lyrics lit with all of the lights up top. The pre-performance buzz was a kind of communion, however scripted. All that to say, Jeremy O. Harris wants to be attentive; his institutional critique (in which the art object is not isolated from its showing) is in line with Slave Play’s performance history. Off-Broadway, the sold-out run at New York Theatre Workshop (directed by Robert O’Hara) offered counselors in the lobby. Harris is not only a director but also a producer of Slave Play, among other producers who, he says, despite disagreements, “always listen because they know I wrote a play about radically listening. The only thing I really lost was the fact that I wanted it to be completely free,” he admits. “I wanted to make sure that when I went to Broadway, there was no way that anyone [could] hold my feet to the fire about making a play on slavery for profit.” He ended up donating some of his own money for reduced and free tickets, and promoted “Underground Railroad style.” All this for one night of many, at the mostly white Golden Theatre, where tickets cost between about $40 and $250 dollars.
Others still take issue, not with the representation of race exclusively, but with how one black woman character, Kaneisha (played by Joaquina Kalukango) was treated in the libidinal economy—desires, relations, identities—that Slave Play takes as common sense. “I think in their minds, Kaneisha comes up short,” he says. When I mention one particular scene—does it depict a rape? A rape fantasy? A humiliating spectacle of racial abjection?—he says, “I don’t talk to people about the third act of my play,” refusing to settle on how the violent sexual-racial fantasies, and their ruptures, should be read. While his early plays were about relationships, he’s “kind of over that,” now working on a script that takes inspiration from Kathy Acker, Samuel R. Delany and Yukio Mishima (“all these writers who are a part of my artistic subconscious”), and a television show for HBO, Yale Drama, an adaptation of his thesis play in which he attempts to forward a “symbiotic relationship” between Hollywood and theatre rather than the historically “vampiric” one. “One of the problems with the American theatre right now is that [playwrights] write one or two plays and then get swept up by Hollywood.” His upcoming queer revenge play, A Boy’s Company Presents: “Tell Me If I’m Hurting You,” will show at Playwrights Horizons in May 2020. “This me being like, I am writing a gay gay gay gay play,” he says.
Harris insists that his main audience is himself. “Part of me knowing myself is knowing that I am going to interact with whiteness every day. The minute I get on the train, all six-foot-five black and queerness of me is going to be seen by straight people and white people immediately, and I have to contend with what that means to them and what that means to me. Generally, the way I engage is by looking them straight in the face, looking straight back and being like ‘fuck you.’”