It's a shocker alright, and provocatively compelling, many would say. And while I'm happy to see new works by young playwrights challenge the status quo, especially when performed so brilliantly as "Slave Play" is...this one is dramatically quite a mess. Provocative? Yes. An intriguing premise? Yes. Important theatre? No, at least not yet.
I can't describe the plot in any detail without revealing spoilers. In fairness, the play's impact relies a great deal on several twists. I can tell you it involves three mixed-race couples introduced in successive scenes set on a Virginia slave plantation.
Each scene is brazenly satirical in its own way as there's a clear power struggle ending with a graphic sexual encounter. It's all pretty amusing and certainly gets our attention.
The setting shifts in Act 2 to the present day. And it's here where the messaging gets muddled.
No doubt Harris is a smart writer exploring the legacy of slavery and its impact on black/white relationships in this country. But the narrative, hopelessly stuffed with cliches, stereotypes, and psycho-sexual babble, obscures what Harris seems to be saying, that slavery has left a psychologically crippling scar on black Americans that white people can't possibly understand.
It all comes to a crashing end with an excruciatingly difficult scene that - no surprise - offends black and white audiences alike.
There's nothing wrong with plays that offend, but Harris penned this one while a student at Yale, and its forced theatrics betray the mark of a young author - over-written and under-done. I wish director Robert O'Hara had done more to fine-tune the work, which runs more than two intermissionless hours.
The very good news is the cast, featuring some of the finest acting you'll see this season. Such versatile talents, they veer back and forth from high comedy to the depths of tragedy with a naturalism that defies the archetypes they portray.
In interviews, Harris points out that Rihanna's song "Work" was his inspiration for the play. Indeed, a study of the song's lyrics would certainly help to make sense of Harris' intentions with the play, but I still can't see how any woman, Rihanna included, could applaud, let alone understand "Slave Play's" confoundingly contrived final act.