Review: Slave Play at the Mark Taper Forum

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in “Slave Play” playing at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

The most Tony Award-nominated play in history is every bit as controversial and thought-provoking as you’d expect. And by the end of it, you may be left wondering if what you take away is what playwright Jeremy O. Harris intended.

The west coast debut at the Mark Taper Forum marked the long awaited reopening of the theater, and CTG’s artistic directors, Tyrone Davis and Lindsay Allbaugh personally welcomed the packed house. It was a classy, convivial affair replete with a complimentary post-show champagne toast during which Harris graciously mingled with fans who wanted to talk about not just the show, but his turn as a fierce fashion designer in Netflix’s Emily in Paris.

We open at the make-believe McGregor plantation where three interracial couples play out their slave-master fantasies — Kaneisha (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) twerks and grovels on the floor with mock fear and genuine anticipation of being whipped and raped by overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan); Alana (Elizabeth Stahlmann) unleashes her hidden dildo-wielding dominatrix with mulatto manservant, Phillip (Jonathan Higginbotham); and Gary (Jakeem Dante Powell) reverses the master and indentured servant roles with his gay lover, Dustin (Devin Kawaoka). Harris’s satirical brilliance is immediately apparent because while the vignettes indisputably disturb — diving deep into themes of race, oppression, dominance, and masochism — he manages to make, at least most of us, laugh. But this is only preparation for what ensues — an intense, harrowing examination of the root causes that have led these couples to seek out such an extreme form of therapy.

The second part, incisive though somewhat lengthy, places us among the couples as they “process” what they’ve learned about themselves and their partners with the help of researchers — Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio). The “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” is explained as an experimental program “designed to help Black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” What, you may ask is Harris trying to tell us? That these black partners need to feel degraded and objectified in order to get their juices flowing? That the racial abuses we suffer are so deeply imbedded in our DNA that they are inescapable and demand ritual exorcism? Love it or hate it, one thing’s for certain; you’ve rarely seen anything like it and will have plenty to ponder about. And isn’t that the best kind of theater?

— G. Dhalla

Slave Play runs 2 hours with no intermission at the Mark Taper Forum through March 13th. Tickets HERE.