Jeremy O. Harris arrives at the California-via-NYC eatery Dimes in head-to-toe Thom Browne (Gucci loafers excluded). Thanks to his 6’5” frame, the voluminous culottes and grey monochrome tailoring read as chic overgrown schoolboy. It’s an intimidatingly high-concept brunch look, except that he credits it to his laxness with chores. “This morning, I hadn’t finished my laundry,” he says, “and so all I had were these four things in my closet.”
His semi-demurral is echoed by fellow playwright and Columbia theater professor Lynn Nottage—later, she’ll joke that playwrights don’t have style, but she’s her own statement’s foil, comfortably clad in an aubergine-and-burgundy jumpsuit and interlocking ceramic earrings by Eny Lee Parker. “I bought one pair, and I’m obsessed now,” she says. “I keep buying them. Also because they break.” Waiting for condiments, she jokes about another accessory she usually totes around: hot sauce. Harris is enthralled: “I love that you have two Pulitzer Prizes and you have hot sauce in your bag. That’s major.”
Each of these artists has a clear but distinct sense of style, and it’s the same with their playwriting success: Both have achieved renown in an industry that has traditionally excluded black narratives—so much so that Harris explains that he’s compiling a list of every play with a black author that has ever been on Broadway.
Harris and Nottage would both be on that brief list. Harris’s Slave Play is, according to various accounts, miraculous, confounding, offensive, genre-exploding. Too much description would betray its story, but its portrayal of trauma’s effects on three interracial couples has earned critical praise and famous fans. (Harris wrote and appears in a new show based on the late black writer Gary Fisher, Black Exhibition, just beginning its run at The Bushwick Starr.) Nottage’s heavily researched exploration of a failing industrial town, Sweat, came to Broadway in 2017; according to the New York Times, it hurtled toward an explosive denouement between working-class barflies with “the awful inevitability of Greek tragedy.”
This is a pair that brings little-examined stories into the rarefied space of the theater and orchestrate devastating clashes of identity, history, and the present. Here are two people who speak to their audiences frankly and insistently, now speaking with each other for Vogue: What follows is edited excerpts of that conversation.
Lynn Nottage: I remember the first time Slave Play passed my radar. In 2014, it was sent to me, I guess in a very nascent form. I am curious about the journey the play has taken from its inception to Broadway.
JOH: It was a seedling idea, one of the things that was just in the back of my mind. I have a list of 10 titles of plays—every time I come up with the title of a play I want to write, I put it in there. This was at the top. I started it [at Yale School of Drama]. [The first reading] was horrible because it was, like, grad students...
...in their very flat voices doing their best to animate complicated characters, which is always incredibly challenging.
It is. But it also is helpful, because that’s how I knew the play that was so funny in my head could be so violent if read the wrong way. It just felt wrong in the room. Everyone also had a very different experience of hearing the play than reading the play.
While you were at Yale, you wrote a play that I’m obsessed with, Rhinestones and Paste.
I wrote it for my friend James Carroll, an actor in the program, who was dying from AIDS. When he was in the show, he was covered with lesions and feeling very marginalized by the program, which wasn’t supporting the fact that he was very ill and still wanting to act. He eventually died while we were in school, and this was the last thing that he did. I wrote this beautiful play, which was a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, but it was about a trans woman who is in purdah and is moving through the world, which was this metaphor of someone who can’t show who they are.
You’re very interested in audience engagement—in finding ways to bring new people into your theater, particularly young people and people of color. When we did Rhinestones and Paste, we were aware that no traditional space was going to do this. We thought, Let’s take the play to where the people are. So we did it in a nightclub in New York.
God, I can’t even remember, someplace probably downtown. The agreement with the club owner was: Literally no one’s here from 8 to 10. What we can do is bring all these people in. They’re going to buy drinks, they’re going to stay after the show. We just need some lights and your sound system.
One of the things at Yale that was really significant for me is that we were sitting right atop the architecture school, the divinity school, and the art school. When the play went up, the reason I knew it worked was because all of my friends from the art school, the architecture school, the music school, and the divinity school were like, “This is theater.” We had a line down the block of all these people, and it taught me something about what I was interested in. I was like, maybe my sensibilities as a theater artist are moving in a different way.
I began teaching my course to get the people who come into these MFA programs to think more expansively about how, where, and why they make theater. My argument is that theater is happening on a daily basis all over the city. One of the things that I do [at Columbia] is to begin the class by going to the Coney Island sideshow. The guy who started it went to the Yale School of Drama as a playwright. He talks to the students about wanting to be in the downtown scene and thinking, there’s no space for me here. Hence, he revitalized burlesque. He brought the sideshow back, which he says is theater. I’m pushing students to think, Yes, I have to go sometimes to where my audience is, rather than being confined by the proscenium—which forces us to have a certain level of engagement, which means I have to sit very quietly in the dark while these people speak at me. There isn’t always a conversation.
That’s one of the reasons I jumped so quickly to work with Telfar. They were so great. They were like, What do you want to do? And I said, “Can I write a 12-minute monologue?”
I feel so constrained even as a theatergoer that I have to sort of sit still. I remember seeing the Grand Kabuki in Japan. When people like something, they shout. I thought there was something exciting in that.
Thinking about the new role of the playwright and your talking about fashion being interwoven with your total aesthetic of self, one thing you’re so good at is promotion. Do you see social media and promotion as part of your art practice?
I think so. For me, a part of my practice is building a specific audience. I saw that the audiences that I wanted for my plays were so far over there. I was a part of that audience, so I know how to navigate towards that.
From the outside, it feels like an extension of the conversation you want to have with the world as an artist. What you’re doing feels like a form of theater that’s breaking the fourth wall and moving into this different space.
I actually can see that being subconsciously true. So much of my behavior is based in theater—I’m so naturally performative. Maybe I am doing some sort of dramaturgy of Twitter, or something.
It feels like that you found this form that really harnesses all of your talents.
One of the things that I’m really interested in with Slave Play is how you walk the fine line of writing about trauma in a way that doesn’t retraumatize.
I think it’s hard to say. What traumatizes you might not traumatize me, or him or her. To take care of people, I can only create spaces of care around my audience. Even at the very first production at Yale, I wanted us to have an intimacy director. I also wanted to give a trigger warning, which they’d never done. That was a crazy thing for the school—all these meetings we had to go to about it.
This guy Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote something that touched me. He was like, People call Jeremy a provocateur, but what I actually see from him is an immense respect for alternative practices and histories, and also a respect for his audience. He’d seen all my plays last year, and at Slave Play, he had therapists.
On Broadway, the hard thing in a commercial house is you can’t have therapists. So Level Forward worked with me to have a [conversation] series. We also have a poem in the program by Morgan Parker, a black female poet, called “A Note for Your Discomfort.” But I don’t know. I think that’s something I’m trying to figure out, how much responsibility I have.
It’s an interesting dilemma, because when I wrote Ruined, which is about rape in the Congo, I knew some women might be triggered. So I spent a lot of time doing workshops and exploring, specifically to look at how to use theater as a tool for healing.
By the end, one of the criticisms of the play was: Why do you move to a place of healing—why didn’t you end in the point of trauma? I thought the audience needed to resolve what they were feeling. I didn’t want to open up that wound; I didn’t want to leave them in a place of vulnerability. I didn’t want them to go out into the world and feel retraumatized—I wanted to somehow suture that wound, even if it was temporary.
That’s the complex thing about the ending of Slave Play.
I have to say, when I saw it I was traumatized. I thought, How do I process that? Everyone stood immediately and I thought, I have to actually sit and process what I’ve seen, because I don’t know all of what I’m feeling. I just feel very vulnerable in this moment. I did want to talk about it and I realized I was surrounded by all these towers of white people, and I thought, I have no one to talk to about what I’m feeling.
The play constantly tries to remind the audience that it’s a play. That third act gets to act like an actual exorcism. Some transference happens there—that is the magic and beauty of theater. One of the first lines of act two, I think, is the Rosetta Stone of the play: “Day 4: So what we all experienced was incredibly triggering and difficult, but it was also fantasy. Fantasy is our earliest form of processing, and it can be real, like real real, but it’s also fantasy.”
They try to give you this way of navigating the fact of a play, but your body can forget that and go someplace else. Part of the reason I shaped it like that is because I wanted to have a reframing of the beginning [of the play] and force us to be like, I have to talk, immediately.
I think that’s one of the most successful things about the play—the architecture of it. You keep thwarting expectations, but also then providing context that allows us to settle in. The first part of the play is hilarious.
The first part, I think, is the most triggering, to me.
I ask a black actress to get on her knees and twerk while eating a cantaloupe. That’s an insane thing to ask someone—not to pretend to do, but to actually do. And it’s a brave act for them to do it, and actually should feel a bit harrowing to watch.
For me, it wasn’t as triggering because it was so clearly absurd, and the intention was clear. Then you get the second part and you think, Okay, thank you for contextualizing all of that. Because while I was laughing, I was so profoundly uncomfortable. Then the third act is in some ways the most troubling of the acts, for me at least: this black woman moving through her personal trauma and trying to come to some sort of resolution, which is a Herculean task.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue