Slave Play overview: Jeremy O Harris’s sensational present will not be a straightforward watch – however a crucial onetheinsiderinsight

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The perfect-known work by controversial American playwright Jeremy O Harris begins like probably the most messed-up bed room farce possible. Three interracial {couples} play out master-slave sexual eventualities, whips cracking and slurs flying in entrance of an electrified viewers whose brains virtually tangibly crackle and short-circuit as they work out how you can react. Poker face? Performative horror? Or simply awkward laughter on the buttock-wobbling spectacle of a Southern-accented white lady decked out like a toilet-roll dolly, brandishing her grandmother’s dildo? It’s a crude opening that mirrors the nuance-free media storm round Slave Play. When it premiered on Broadway in 2019, the forged obtained dying threats. When its West Finish run introduced that some performances could be reserved for Black audiences as a part of the “Black Out nights” initiative, an official spokesperson for the then prime minister Rishi Sunak condemned the concept as “improper” and “divisive”.

However there’s one thing way more multi-layered and deft about Slave Play than first appearances would possibly recommend. The primary act’s costume-drama trappings quickly fall away, ruffles changed by sharp-edged psychological insights in a second act set in a gaggle remedy session. Rihanna’s music “Work” stitches these two halves collectively, its lyrics even written in neon throughout Clint Ramos’s set. At first it seems like a Bridgerton-era witty anachronism, however quickly it’s extra like the interior monologue of Kaneisha (Olivia Washington), who’s going spherical in circles as she work, work, works away at her relationship with emotionally stunted white man Jim (Package Harington), making an attempt to unearth her buried need for him. Will she discover it if he calls her “negress”? Or makes her eat melon off the ground? She’s looking for out at a therapeutic retreat for Black companions in interracial relationships who’re affected by anhedonia – an incapability to really feel pleasure – which is presided over by cringey intercourse researchers Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), who assume that role-play may be the reply.

Homosexual couple Gary (Fisayo Akinade) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) are attempting their greatest to play alongside, Gary’s sexual reawakening dampened by Dustin’s hilariously convoluted refusal to recognise that he advantages from white privilege. And so are Alana (Annie McNamara) and her a lot youthful boyfriend Phillip (Aaron Heffernan), who don’t need to admit the twisted enchantment of their relationship’s racialised energy dynamic. There’s quite a bit right here which may resonate extra with American audiences – each the therapy-speak, with discuss of “processing” and “holding area”, and the historic context, which could really feel distant to a UK viewers educated by way of a curriculum that’s been largely scrubbed clear of this nation’s deep and grubby involvement within the slave commerce. However English Jim presents a little bit of a method in – he sees the remedy as “beginning fires the place there have been none”, earlier than regularly coming to really feel the historical past burning in Kaneisha’s reminiscence. And maybe in her physique, too – there’s a refined thread of reference right here to the speculation of epigenetics, which posits that trauma from generations in the past lingers on in our genes.

A lot of the play centres on Kaneisha’s wrestle to know and provides voice to what’s taking place inside her. However as Alana factors out – whereas speaking over her taciturn companion Phillip – it’s the white individuals whose emotions dominate the dialog.

‘Slave Play’ is never an easy watch
‘Slave Play’ isn’t a straightforward watch (Helen Murray)

Harris’s play is filled with a pointy satirical intelligence that makes the fitting phrases fall from the improper mouths, and resists pat conclusions. It’s by no means a straightforward watch – and its Black Out nights really feel like an vital gesture to Black audiences who don’t need white discomfort to outline their expertise of it. However it’s a crucial one, exhibiting how outdated energy buildings linger, coated over by messy, fleshy protuberances of need.

Noël Coward Theatre, till 21 September

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