With 'Slave Play,' Jeremy O. Harris Provokes His Way To Broadway Jeremy O. Harris, 30, started writing a sexually explicit, transgressive and comic work as a graduate student at Yale. It proved a surprising smash hit, and will soon open on a much bigger stage.
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With 'Slave Play,' A Young Playwright Provokes His Way To Broadway

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With 'Slave Play,' A Young Playwright Provokes His Way To Broadway

With 'Slave Play,' A Young Playwright Provokes His Way To Broadway

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even in Times Square, crammed with tourists from around the world dodging people in superhero costumes, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris stands out - walking down the sidewalk with two thick long braids, 6'5", dressed in a see-through shirt, carrying designer bags and smoking a cigarette. He's between Fashion Week events and his Broadway opening, approaching a marquee with his name on it.

JEREMY O HARRIS: We are standing on 45th Street across from the Golden Theatre and a sign that says, the single most daring thing I've seen in a theater in a long time.

SHAPIRO: And there's your name in big, black all-capital letters.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes, it's crazy. I don't know. I'm still, like, OK (laughter). I guess that's what's happening now.

SHAPIRO: That quote about the single most daring thing I've seen in the theater is from The New York Times, referring to the controversial, explicit and funny play that sent Jeremy O. Harris on a rocket trajectory to Broadway. It's called "Slave Play."

HARRIS: This is before Act 3. This is in Act 3.

SHAPIRO: Last week, we dropped by the theater for a final rehearsal before the first Broadway preview, when an audience can pay to see the show for about a month of performances before opening night. The show explores the legacy of slavery in interracial sexual dynamics. It begins on a plantation with a master-slave sexual scenario. The play is visceral and graphic. It breaks pretty much every taboo around race and sex. And it is opening in a theater literally one block away from "Phantom Of The Opera" and "Frozen." Unlike those shows, the only tune people are likely to walk away humming here is a Rihanna number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Work, work, work, work, work. You see me, I be...

SHAPIRO: Jeremy O. Harris starts bouncing around in the theater as the music plays. The set is a two-story wall of mirrors reflecting our faces back at us. At the top of those mirrors, a lyric from that Rihanna song, "Work."

HARRIS: We have to walk a really far way up to the green room.

SHAPIRO: Harris is the youngest black man ever to have a play he's written open on Broadway. He just turned 30. And this opening is coming less than a year after the play ran off-Broadway. That kind of speed is almost unheard of in the theater world. So the time we spend with him is full of these pinch-me moments, like backstage in the green room, when he first sees the Broadway playbill, the program for his show.

HARRIS: This all feels really wild. Oh, here we go.

SHAPIRO: He opens it up to one of the first pages.

HARRIS: A poet friend of mine named Morgan Parker wrote this really beautiful note on the play called A Note On Your Discomfort.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us like a sentence or two of it?

HARRIS: (Reading) A Note On Your Discomfort - 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 you don't already know.

SHAPIRO: Harris is bracing himself for how people might express that discomfort, hurt and shock. When "Slave Play" was produced off-Broadway last year, protesters started a campaign with the hashtag #shutdownslaveplay.

HARRIS: There's so much, like, potential controversy around whatever is happening, especially in the digital sphere and not like just The New York Times sphere of it all.

SHAPIRO: Right.

HARRIS: It means a lot when people co-sign the play.

SHAPIRO: What I'm hearing is that you're a little bit nervous, not about whether it will be positively reviewed by theater reviewers, but about how it will be received by the people who you're trying to speak to.

HARRIS: Oh, 100%. But I've told everyone at every meeting we've had. And it's really difficult to keep this ball in the air because I think that the space just generally isn't made for it. But like if the play isn't a hit with black people and young people, then the play's not a hit.

SHAPIRO: We run into one of those young black people at the box office in front of the theater. Tyler Grigsby (ph) recognizes Harris the playwright.

HARRIS: Hi.

TYLER GRIGSBY: Hi. Can I get a selfie or are you busy?

HARRIS: Yeah, of course. We can do a selfie.

GRIGSBY: Congratulations.

HARRIS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Are you just picking up your ticket to the play?

GRIGSBY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When are you going to see it?

GRIGSBY: First preview, tonight.

SHAPIRO: Can I just ask why you think the play is important, what impact the play, do you think, will have on Broadway?

GRIGSBY: Yeah. So I haven't - I missed it at the New York Theatre Workshop. But I just think anything that, like, explores the spectrum of blackness is important because it's not a monolith. And I think any of our narratives need to be seen on this stage.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of black narratives on the stage that are not as risky as this one.

GRIGSBY: Yeah. Yeah. There's a lot of safe stuff on Broadway, but that bores me. So I want to be excited. He's my contemporary. I want to support people that are writing for me and writing stuff that excites me.

HARRIS: I feel like I paid you to come and say this.

SHAPIRO: Well, I hope you enjoy the show.

GRIGSBY: Thank you.

HARRIS: I'll see you later.

GRIGSBY: Happy opening.

SHAPIRO: Hours later, after three acts without an intermission - laughs, gasps, tears and a standing ovation, it's time for the after party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Actors and producers mingle with models and writers. Unlike a lot of Broadway plays today, this cast of eight does not include a single big star. Some of the cast members have been working on the project since its first reading at the Yale Drama School, like this actress.

IRENE SOFIA LUCIO: Irene Sofia Lucio, and I play Patricia.

SHAPIRO: I ask Lucio why she thinks Harris is having so much success right now. What is it about his voice and message?

LUCIO: I think that we're all into safe spaces right now, but we might need more brave spaces where people speak their truth. And we start to lean in and listen to things that make us uncomfortable instead of walking away from each other.

SHAPIRO: That's an interesting distinction. Explain what you mean by brave spaces as opposed to safe spaces.

LUCIO: Safe spaces tend to really worry about when somebody is in discomfort. We need to nurture them and make them feel like they're safe and they're OK. And in a brave space, when you feel discomfort, you're supposed to sit with it and acknowledge that that's part of the process towards growth.

SHAPIRO: It's not only the theater world that's excited about Harris. He's a consultant on the hit HBO show "Euphoria," and he's writing a film with the Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen, who's also at the after-party.

BRUCE COHEN: It's because of the time that we're in right now and what this play is about is why it happened so fast.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say that?

COHEN: The play is exploring so many things that are on people's minds right now in this really complicated, difficult time. A lot of it's about race but not just about race, about gender, about identity, about expression, about how people connect and interact or aren't allowed to.

SHAPIRO: The next morning, I catch up with Jeremy O. Harris at his hotel room. Before the interview, he needs two things - coffee and the song that he's woken up to everyday for the last few weeks. He pulls up "Due West" by Kelsey Lu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUE WEST")

KELSEY LU: (Singing) My mind put you onto a throne.

SHAPIRO: I ask how he's feeling now that the first Broadway performance of "Slave Play" in front of a paying audience is behind him. He's not basking in his success. He says, everyone was great. I have notes.

HARRIS: You know, we've got to tinker.

SHAPIRO: One of the people who works on the show who I was talking to about it was like, the company has always not really believed that this was actually going to open on Broadway, that, like, at the last minute, they would pull the plug.

HARRIS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: But now the audience is here. So even if they turn off the power, we'll all just like turn on flashlights and do the show anyway.

HARRIS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Did you have that same feeling?

HARRIS: Oh, yes. I mean, even last night, I was like, well, I literally don't know if we're going to stay open the rest of the week. So I will call you. I'll celebrate week one when it's over.

SHAPIRO: Because it's such a challenging play or why? Like, what's the fear?

HARRIS: I mean, I think that, like - I mean, I think also when someone tells you something enough, it can start to be real. Something people told me a lot is that, like, this play doesn't make sense on Broadway.

SHAPIRO: We'll soon find out whether the play makes financial sense on Broadway. "Slave Play's" official opening night is October 6. But in the first week of paid previews, the show played to a crowd that was 99% full, including plenty of celebrities and a woman Harris describes as his idol, the patron saint of the play. On Saturday, Rihanna came to see the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me, I be work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt. There's something 'bout that work, work, work, work, work, work. When you a gon' learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn. Me na care if me tired, tired, tired, tired, tired, tired.

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