Returning to the Mark Taper is wonderful and Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” will certain spark some conversations, but in Los Angeles, during a pandemic that has seen racial tensions rise, the play seems reductive.
Walking into the thrust theater, the audiences sees themselves reflected by the panels of mirrors of the backdrop while listening to the sounds of what approximate everyday ambiance on a Southern plantation. The stage almost seems like theater in the round. You might feel you should be standing straight up in your stiff formal wear or floating along in your hoop skirts.
The play involves three different couples locked in different scenarios on the MacGregor Plantation. Kaneisha (Antonio Bette Crowe-Legacy), a Black slave, is seductively cleaning the house of Jim, who isn’t a plantation owner, but as an overseer still can have another man’s slave clean his cabin. The wife of the plantation owner, Alana (Elizabeth Stahlmann) has requested that one of the light-skinned house slaves, Phillip (Jonathan Higginbotham), play his violin for her in her bedroom as she lounges around on her four-postered lace canopied bed. Gary (Jake Dante Powell) is a Black overseer who is increasingly asserting his power over an indentured servant, Dustin (Devin Kawaoka). Dustin isn’t Black, but he emphasizes that he isn’t white.
Analyzing the Antebellum Sexual Performance anxieties between these interracial couples are another couple, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio).
There’s a turn in here, a twist that I won’t ruin. Instead, let me use the program notes to describe what happens here. A quote from “Black Rage” considers that “One could make a case for mutual lust and jealousy as the basis for racial conflict in America.”
Poet Morgan Parker also asserts that:
This might hurt. This could prod open regrets and secrets and what you find could be shock. But there’s nothing in ‘Slave Play’ that part of you doesn’t already know. The setting: a plantation. Time: irrelevant. Lights up on a Black woman working. Before I saw it, all anyone would ‘give away’ was that ‘Slave Play’ would resonate with me–as a Black woman and particularly as someone who’s tried to post-coitally tell a White lover that when we have sex, there’s blip wherein I suddenly inhabit an ancestor’s body and he the body of a pale, pilfering master. Whiteness was difficult for my lover to hear about and mid-thirst ancestral abduction perhaps incomprehensible, but it got said.
I am not Black nor am I White. I am not white-passing like Dustin nor the actor who plays him. I have considered the complications of becoming emotionally entangled with a White or Black man, but the shadow that haunts such exchanges is the Western concept of a geisha girl and/or the myth of penis size.
In Los Angeles, the plantations were called haciendas. The slaves were not from Africa. Slavery did not end with the American Civil War nor Juneteenth in California. Under Mexican law, slavery was abolished here and, unlike Texas, never re-introduced when California became part of the USA. In practice, however, Native Americans were enslaved even after the 1860s.
Issues of race are more complicated than the binary of Black and White. In the play, Jim is supposed to be British. While there are Black British residents and citizens, there is also a hierarchy of Whiteness, one that predates US slavery of people of African descent. Some of the White against White prejudices are more recent developments, started by King Henry VIII (1491-1547). The Anglicans against Catholics split the British population and in modern times, the boiled into what was known as The Troubles and include a lynching (corporals killings on 19 March 1988). Other historic animosities predate that (e.g. English against the Scots) and there were many wars. The first War of Scottish Independence was in 1296.
Slavery was abolished in England in 1833, and slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807. The Church of England owned slaves via the Anglican Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts that had sugar plantations in the West Indies.The British had more than slavery; they had an empire and a colonial system that exploited native populations.
Even in the US, there are variations of Whiteness. White people are not a monolith, but the play doesn’t explore Dustin’s disclaimer of Whiteness. Under the current classifications by the US Census Bureau, people of North African descent and of Middle Eastern descent are considered White. People from North Africa are not usually considered African American; they are people without a continent just as people from Western Asia are not often considered Asian American. And yet, as 9/11 indicated, they do experience prejudice. They are not White enough. Nor are the Latinos/Hispanics who face prejudice and are a larger minority at 18 percent than African American/Blacks who are 13 percent of the US population. In Los Angeles County, Hispanic/Latino are 48.6 percent of the population.
Having lived in areas where a larger population of Asian Americans lived and yet more attention was given to Black Heritage Month, I have to say the binary system doesn’t help race relations and using models and history taken from a different region is fosters a disconnect between the reality of the region and historical presentation. If representation matters, then it isn’t there for all minorities. Pasadena is only 8.8 percent Black, but 34.9 percent Hispanic/Latino and 17.2 percent Asian (plus 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander). Pasadena drove out their Chinese in 1885; Los Angeles had already had a mass lynching of Chinese in 1871, during the so-called Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).
In Torrance, there’s a reminder (Zamperini Field) of Louis Zamperini (1971-2014), who was born in the state of New York, but attended Torrance High School. He faced prejudice against Italians. His parents were from Verona, Italy, but Zamperini became an Olympian and a hero during World War II.
Does “Slave Play” speak to Latinos/Hispanics? Does “Slave Play” speak to Native Americans? I don’t know. I do know that in a time where Asian Americans face prejudice from White and Black people in the US, “Slave Play” seems a reductive play that simplistically looks at racism from a binary of Black and White and in which shades of Black are considered, but not necessarily the differing shades of White.
Under the direction of Robert O’Hara, the sexual situations and nudity are not salacious or gratuitous. The ensemble work well together in the give-and-take and possible takeover of personalities.
“Slave Play” received the most nominations for a non-musical play for the 74th Tony Awards (12), topping the 2018 revival of “Angels in America,” but did not receive any awards.
“Slave Play” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until March 13. Tickets at Center Theatre Group are going paperless. To provide a contact-free experience, you can get Digital Tickets. Access, share, and scan tickets via email, text, or Apple Wallet. Use our guide to learn how to access your digital tickets. Tickets start at $30. Buy tickets via CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012).