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Friday, February 18, 2022

F3Stage Review: Slave Play shocks... superficially

Film Flam Flummox

Slave Play program

Jeremy O. Harris's Slave Play has been a lightning rod for controversy and clickbait headlines from its Off-Broadway debut in 2018 through its two Broadway engagements in 2019 and 2021. Now finally debuting in Los Angeles at Mark Taper Forum (following additional controversy when, for a brief spell, Harris pulled the piece from Center Theatre Group's season lineup in a protest against the lack of female-written productions), with the majority of its final New York cast intact, the outrage and intense discussion will surely continue into a fourth year. But after finally sitting through its three-act, intermission-free two hours, one has admiration more for Harris's knack for provocation via self-promotion rather than provoking real thought through the actual substance of his material.

Genuine outrage and offense is, in this observer's opinion, completely justified, but not by the piece's opening act, which has fueled the majority of the clickbait headlines, rather understandably so. A trio of two-hander scenes in period master-slave regalia play out: a Black woman (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) twerking to Rihanna for her overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan); a mulatto house slave (Jonathan Higginbotham) being pulled into an act of sexual humiliation by his master's wife (Elizabeth Stahlmann); and, in a reversal in two senses, a free Black man (Jakeem Dante Powell) exerts his dominance over a white male indentured servant (Devin Kawaoka). Explicit talk and action ensues as every scenario descends into admittedly uncomfortable psychosexual and racial power plays, but to describe it with words is to make it far more incendiary than how it plays out on stage. The cast, Harris, and director Robert O'Hara pitch the tone so far over the top that one cannot help but wonder in the moment if they're aiming for cartoonish sketch comedy or simply trying way too hard to get a rise from the audience--which, thanks to the mirrored back wall of Clint Ramos's scenic design, can see themselves and their fellow patrons react in real time.

It becomes clear, once the scenes shift with the arrival of act two, that it's a bit of both. Without giving away any of the piece's twists (which, at this point, have been heavily spoiled, but I will not do so here), the tone settles down to a more sober one, but surface silliness makes way for pretentious self-importance, personified on and around the stage by a pair of newly-entered characters played by Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio. They, and, in turn, Harris, do make some valid points about the complexities of generational racial trauma and how it subconsciously infects all aspects of life, most specifically sexuality. But any concrete points are beaten to death in this repetitive and interminable act, where conversations and arguments go in so many circles that any valid food for thought, and any cutting satirical points, are flushed down with all of the spiraling.

The tone goes from sober to downright dark in the final act, which is a go-for-broke showcase for Crowe-Legacy and Nolan, who give no less than their all in body and spirit. If only their raw, naked (in every sense) vulnerability were in service of material that deserved it. To be fair, Harris ends this act--and, thus, the entirety of the piece--on a truly upsetting note that more than explains why many an audience member on both coasts has walked out of the theatre in disgust. But after the piece shamelessly, self-consciously, and even gleefully pushes only surface buttons for the bulk of the run time, the weight of the Pandora's Box opened by the closing note feels completely unearned and thus more than a bit insulting, one more salvo of the shallow shock value that characterizes the rest of Slave Play.

The Los Angeles premiere production of Slave Play is now playing at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles through Sunday, March 13.

(Special thanks to Center Theatre Group)

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