Wrestling with Mode and Meaning: the Play of Poetry in Theatre

By | 1 May 2020

I’ll return to where I started, with the experience of sitting in the high, steep seating bank of the John Golden Theatre in New York, gobsmacked at the upside-down world playwright Jeremy O. Harris had created in the extraordinary opening section of Slave Play. The visceral, intellectual and emotional reaction I had during this section was what prompted the desire to write this essay, to probe into questions of what poetic language is, versus what dramatic language is and what functions these two approaches to language perform in different kinds of theatre.

I should note that a few spoilers about the play follow. They are not a secret, and are inherent to the plot and discussed in every review and think-piece about the work. But if you plan to see or read the play and want the experience of mind-blowing topsy-turviness that I had, now is the time to stop reading. The action of Slave Play carries on as it begins. As well as Kaneisha (‘a dark, black woman unafraid of what she knows she wants; twenty-eight’) (location 98) and Jim (‘a white man and inheritor of more than he knows how to handle; thirty-five’), we meet two other couples. A plantation bedroom scene unfolds between the slave Phillip (‘a mulatto who still has to learn his color; thirty-five’) and his mistress Alana (‘a white woman who wants more than the world sees fit to give her; thirty-six’). And finally, we are privy to a romp in the hay between labourers Dustin (‘a white man but the lowest type of white – dingy, an off white; twenty-eight’) and Gary (‘a dark, black man whose life has been lived with the full trauma of his color; twenty-seven’). Every scene presents a similar extraordinary play of language, seduction, sex and power as the first. At one moment we seem to be in familiar territory, with the power of the white body exerted over that of the brown or black body. But then things will switch and roles will reverse and characters will assert authority or undercut their own status in startling ways.

It was, for me, a completely thrilling and uncomfortable forty-five minutes of theatre. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know what the rules of engagement were, either on stage or off. I knew there were things I should be cringing at that I was laughing at. I knew I was a very white, Australian audience member and that in a way the play was not for me but in other ways it was entirely for me – to discombobulate and disturb me.

The play received some glowing reviews. Jesse Green (a white man) from the New York Times called it: ‘wilfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering’ (par. 5). It also garnered criticism from black writers – and a petition on change.org, to have the play banned – who thought it pandered to white audiences and in some ways betrayed or exploited African-American communities and the violent legacy of slavery, as in Samudzi’s critique.

Harris is a young writer. He is bold and unapologetic. In a 2019 interview in The Guardian he acknowledges the tensions Slave Play raised around audience, perception and reception:

So many people have dictated what my intentions were with Slave Play. One of the things they’ve always articulated is that I wrote Slave Play for white people and that it’s not written for a black audience. That’s so bizarre to me. Because the first audience I ever wrote this for was an audience of my classmates at Yale. And the people who were most upset by it, back then, were the white viewers […] Yes, my play has been widely written about by white theater critics and beloved by them. But I got to see there was validation from all the black theater critics as well … one of the great things about the play, like any good play should have, there were even people – in a room full of black folks – who didn’t like it. It felt like the ratio of people who liked it and didn’t like it was very similar to the ratio of white people who liked it and didn’t like it. (Par. 12)

Green writes in his review: ‘I can say as a white person that he manipulates white discomfort expertly to the advantage of his storytelling’ (par. 10). This was also my experience – that my literary and writerly and dramatic rules of engagement were being torn apart and re-written. This is what made me think of the language, and the form, as poetry. It wanted to experiment with norms and expose how power is wielded through language and through bodies. The characters were flat, comedic, ridiculous, heightened, extreme, awful, with no subtlety of psychological realism to ground them.

After a time in this poetic, absurd, comedic world, one of the characters starts repeating the word ‘STARBUCKS,’ over and over (location 897-908). Suddenly, two doors appear high in the set and two women appear. They seem to have been observing these scenes. One of them suggests everyone ‘take a little breather’ (location 920). The reality is not immediately explained but it feels as though we are in safer territory. There are rules – we just haven’t yet been privy to them. There is a sense of anticipation that things are about to be explained.

The next scene (Act 2: ‘Process’) reveals that, all along, the characters have been in a couples counselling workshop, run by a queer female couple, Tea (‘a mulatto who is studied in her black and her white; twenty-six’) and Patricia (‘a light brown woman who knows many lives; thirty’) (location 107). The workshop is called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy and the goal is for black partners in inter-racial couples to re-ignite their sexual attraction to their white partners.

A long scene unfolds that is much more like standard theatre. It is extremely well-written, incisive and hilarious, but ultimately adhering to rules of naturalism and character development – albeit in a satirical way. The foibles of each individual are exposed, giving Harris the chance to flex his linguistic muscles and opinions about race, gender and sexual power. It goes on for a long time. Perhaps too long. The observations are razor-sharp. The actors give their all and are all excellent comic performers, treading that line between earnestness and self-awareness with aplomb. Interestingly, on the page, the text continues to be laid out more like a poem than standard drama. But the music of it tends more towards a comedic, slightly absurdist, naturalism – as evidenced here with Gary confronting his partner Dustin, who appears white but states he doesn’t like to identify as white:


Well sometimes I forget
and need to be reminded.
Need you to really lay out for me the ways
that you being confused for ‘white’
is anywhere near as traumatizing for you
as my growing up without a choice to be anything but—
because I’m black
black black
blue black
jet black
raisin black
eerie black
people have seen so much colour in me they could make
a new rainbow with the shades but they always go back to black. (Location 2127)

For me, while the playfulness with character and language continued to be exciting, there was something slightly disappointing about this turn of events. I was so captivated by the strangeness and the danger of the opening scenes, the risk of taking language and action to places that seemed new and weird and untrodden. To have it explained away as ‘couples therapy’ and ‘role play’ seemed to deflate the earlier experimentation.

The final section of the play (Act 3: ‘Exorcise’) strikes a fascinating balance between the first two. It is an intimate scene between Kaneisha and Jim, presumably in the bedroom they are sharing at the couples retreat. It begins with a short, tense exchange followed by a long monologue from Kaneisha explaining her complicated attraction to Jim while he attempts to seduce her:


(She likes the way this feels but is fighting it.)

I loved the way people would look at us
at the movies
out shopping
sitting on our terrace for brunch.
There was always an intake of breath
and a triple take.
A look to you
then to me
then to you again
as though making sure they had to do the calculations
on what you look like in contrast to me
twice just to check their work.
Yet they always seemed so pleased
with their result.
You became this sort of champion
and I became Helen of Troy.
‘So beautiful.’ (Location 2451-2463)

In a sudden and devastating moment, the language slides from this back into role play. Harris uses the contrast of the two modes to stunning effect. We have been listening to Kaneisha’s reasoned and impassioned revelations about her feelings and the complexities of race and power in their relationship. She is in control. She is calling the shots of the scene by virtue of the fact that she is dominating the dialogue. And then:

(Jim pushes Kaneisha face first into the bed.)


Shut up you dirty negress.


What the / hell are you—

(Jim rips the shirt Kaneisha had been wearing and stuffs her mouth closed.
‘Work’ abruptly stops.)


I said
shut up,
you dirty
negress. (Location 2535-2548)

A horrifically violent and disturbing sequence unfolds. The power of playing with language is once again asserted. Jim’s words are unambiguously words of racial hatred. That they seem to come out of the blue, interrupting Kaneisha, throws all the reason and explanation of the second act off kilter. Harris uses language to pull the rug out from under the audience and subvert our understanding of the play. He again uses lineation on the page to draw attention to the gun shot brutality of how these lines could – or should – be delivered. Things flip once more when Kaneisha eventually calls out ‘Starbucks’ three times (location 2588). This tells us she has been in control all the while, although what we have seen would imply otherwise. In the final moment of the play, Kaneisha thanks Jim for finally listening to her and (the implication being) for fully acknowledging his ‘role’ as a white person, a white man, with dominance and violence as a deep part of him.

Slave Play isn’t revolutionary in its experimentations with language, form and content. Many experimental texts have pushed language boundaries further and done away completely with character and dramatic structure. Shange’s for colored girls, written more than forty years earlier, is still more radical in its form. What is unique and striking about Slave Play is its context. It offers a version of experimentation within a mainstream setting. I have no idea if Harris would identify as a poetic writer or consider the language of his play as poetry. It’s not a discussion I’ve seen come up in the critical writing about the work. This focuses almost exclusively on plot, character and content. For me it’s a poem because it turns language inside out, and because it makes words stick in my ears and in my mouth in ways that can’t be unstuck.

It is exciting when language like this finds the kind of mass audience that mainstream theatre in a city like New York can provide, bringing the commercial and the poetic into conversation. It’s powerful in that it can question and shift where power is located. It is theatre that doesn’t want its audience to feel familiar, safe and complacent. It is theatre that wants us to leave with sweat on our palms and our hearts in our mouths. A good state to be in for any attempt, however small, to make changes in how we use words, who gets to speak and whose voices ring the loudest.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.