slave play

3 Black Women on the Experience of Seeing Slave Play

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan as Kaneisha and Jim. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Slave Play is the most-talked-about show on Broadway right now. In just under two hours, the play takes on race, sex, power, colorism, inequality, sexual inadequacy, gentrification, rape, and mental illness. The play hinges on a twist (spoiler alert): What first appears to be a story about sexual relationships on an antebellum plantation is eventually revealed to be an extended counseling session for interracial couples — they’re literally “playing” slavery.

Slave Play is divisive, and there’s been plenty of outcry against it, including a controversy-filled lead-up that culminated in a petition to cancel its production. It’s turned playwright Jeremy O. Harris into a rising star and sparked an unexpected Rihanna-texting drama. The show debuted on Broadway earlier this month, but three Cut staffers, all black women, saw it beforehand. One saw it with an audience of mostly white people; two were invited to a performance for a predominantly black audience. Below, a portion of the conversation prompted by their experiences.

Devine Blacksher, fashion assistant: I walked out of Slave Play and thought, “I’m going to need at least a day to process this.”

Indya Brown, fashion partnerships editor: I had so many immediate feelings, but of course I couldn’t help but think, “Did I just see a dick?”

Devine: I couldn’t see the dick from my seat, but the whole interracial story line made me think of my last relationship. Heavy.

Indya: Blackness is an experience I think that’s only fully comprehensible if you’ve lived it. In my experience when it comes to interracial relationships, no matter how knowledgeable the non-black partner is about how racism works, there are some things they just don’t understand. Those frustrations are often difficult to put into words, but I think the play captured how it feels.

Devine: In my own relationships, I’ve been a mixture of all the black characters on that stage: feeling like my skin color doesn’t impact the way other people look at me, realizing that it does and always will, thinking that I could avoid American racial issues by dating a European guy, and just being upset because, like, you don’t get me bro.

Nana Agyemang, Instagram editor: The play had a lot of humor, but it was really serious at times. Devine, you cried, right?

Devine: Yeah. I was laughing a lot, too. But in the beginning, the “slave play” portion was complicated — do I laugh or do I not? And then there was the part at the end of the play when Kaneisha and her husband, Jim, are in the bedroom. Kaneisha is alone in the space, packing up, and you can see her emotionally reacting to all of the frustrations that have built up in her relationship. Then Jim enters the room, sad and needy, trying to understand why she walked away from the therapy session. I didn’t physically cry, but I felt tears coming. I got goosebumps. It just made me think about past relationships where I was trying to connect with my white partner — have them understand me — and I felt they were never going to.

Indya: I must say before seeing the show, my curiosity was piqued because of the intense commentary and criticism from the black community on social media. I already had a vague sense of the plot, but I couldn’t grapple with the title: The idea of “slave play” — how can you take something as serious as slavery and make it satirical? How can you make it into something that’s sexual, that’s a fetish? It’s controversial, no doubt.

BUT I am still torn as to why Kaneisha wanted to role play slavery in a sexual way. I think she felt a need to be exposed to her ancestors, like “Look, I’m with a white man. This is the reality of the situation.” No sugar coating. Just baring the truth.

Oh my God, let’s talk about PHILIP.

Annie McNamara and Sullivan Jones as Phillip and Alana. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Devine: Oh boy.

Indya: I think that for black women, we all can recognize a Phillip in our lives. He’s the type of guy who believes he can transcend blackness. An OJ, if you will. In my college days, I encountered lots of Phillips.

Devine: I knew a guy like Phillip in college. He didn’t want to own his blackness because he was biracial. He literally told me he was not black.

Nana: Those types of guys really killed my self-esteem in college. Because they never went after dark-skinned women, they made me feel small, and they would literally say things like, “I only date mixed-race girls with curly hair, or white girls.” And, yes, they never wanted to admit they were black.

Indya: It’s like constant self-denial.


Indya: One-thousand percent. Also, you think it was intentional that this character was male? I certainly do.

Nana: Yes!

Devine: I do too.

Nana: Having grown up in predominantly white schools and attending a predominantly white college, I’m too familiar with interracial dating between a black jock and a white woman. I saw exactly that between Phillip and Alana. She thought she could speak for him and she did, until he realized his blackness.

Indya: As soon as she shot her hand up like a teacher’s pet during the therapy session, I knew what kind of character Jeremy Harris was going for. She was the funniest yet most insufferable character. I’ve met so many women like her, it felt real to me.

Nana: When she broke out crying, I was like, Wait, you’ve had the least amount of struggle here.

Indya: And what was even more hilarious is that she used that brief moment of criticism to shift the attention to herself as a victim.

Devine: Once Phillip was given the time to PROCESS (as they kept saying), everything changed. Also, why was Kaneisha’s husband getting so mad when the therapist kept telling him to process?

Nana: No idea. Also, let’s be real, he couldn’t handle her anyway. Remember their first scene when she was giving him that work and really getting into it? And he backed off.

Devine: My first date with my ex, I twerked on him and he couldn’t handle it either. A sign.

Nana: What was his reaction to your twerk? Did he fall?

Devine: He was like “I don’t really do that.”

Indya: Twerking on a white man is like Russian Roulette, you don’t know the reaction you’re going to get.

Nana: We suppress so much as minorities: in our relationships, work spaces, and even around some of our non-black friends. After watching the show, it solidified for me that I could only be with a black man. But that’s just me personally. I don’t want to have to explain every racial difference or situation that happens to me. I think that would make me feel alone.

Devine: We grew up thinking colorism was somehow natural. I had to go back when I got older and retrain my mind, just restructure how I saw the world around me.

Nana: Growing up, when you watch TV, the wealthy black people are what? Light-skinned. It makes sense that you have to restructure. We all have to rewire our brains. It’s only recently that it’s become mainstream to say that dark skin is beautiful.

Indya: I honestly think it’s taken social media to hold people accountable in terms of representation and diversity. That’s why I really appreciate that Kaneisha was a dark-skinned black woman. I think Jeremy probably did that purposefully, because he’s aware of how colorism often props up light-skinned black women in major roles.

Devine: The “Angry Black Woman” stereotype.

Nana: Exactly. Gabrielle Union talks about that all the time. Why are all the dark-skin women the angry ones?

Devine: Black women get a lot, but dark-skinned black women get it the fucking most.

Nana: Dev, you saw this with a pretty white audience, didn’t you? Indya and I saw it with over 700 black people. Imagine the reactions in that theater. It’s like, although we all have different backgrounds, our blackness unifies us and our thoughts. We just all get it; we’ve all had those experiences.

Devine: I was with a pretty white, over-55 crowd.

Indya: Some people were not amused, I think. I know I was internally cringing during the first part, with the racist jokes and the actual “slave play” scenes. It made me uncomfortable to see something so explicitly racially demeaning, which I think was largely the point.

Nana: I think the dad in the front row was not trying to see a dick. Also, we all thought Philip was fine, but the man behind me was like, “Oh, he look GOOD.” To me that was real. When people feel free to voice their opinions out loud, that’s how you know you’re in a place where it’s safe to be unapologetically black.

Devine: There was this black man in the middle of the crowd that kept throwing hand in the air and snapping his fingers while screaming YASSS. It only stood out to me because all of the people surrounding him were white and they were just sitting there. Maybe they were reacting internally, but they were silent.

Indya: It was like being in church — the cheers and hollering and the “hmmhmms” after a character said something powerful that really resonated. As soon as Kaneisha started twerking to “Work” in the opening, people were shouting “aye” as if we were dancing at a family function. It was incredible and was really a privilege to be able to watch with an all-black audience. I felt like I was in a safe space, like I was watching something with my friends or relatives.

The full cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Devine: I don’t know if the audience was uncomfortable, but I was uncomfortable being in a predominantly white space watching this play. I was looking around at other people’s reactions so much in the beginning that I had to tell myself, “Fuck them,” once or twice in my head. Then eventually I got to a point where I realized this isn’t about them. It’s something white people should go see, but it’s not for them. It’s about my community.

It makes sense to be self-conscious because really, the whole play is about being seen. When you enter the theater, there are mirrors that allow you to see yourself and the people around you.

Being seen is something Kaneisha has been aware of since she was a child. When she went on school trips to plantations, her mother would put her in the prettiest dresses and tell her to walk with her head held high because the ancestors were watching.

Her strong desire to role-play might be because she wants her husband to see the ancestors within her. The struggles and trauma that come from being black. And when Jim can’t do that due to the fact that it hurts him too much to see his “queen” like that, he’s not really seeing his own privilege as a white person.

Indya: Honestly, the ending left me kind of unsatisfied. Almost like it was leading up to a great, big resolution, but then there was none. What Jeremy said about it being cubist, and how the plot folds in on itself — it doesn’t feel like there’s any one message we can wrap up in a bow and say “Here is what this play is about.” I guess my bigger question is, what do we do from here?

Nana: This was my first time watching a Broadway show and I’ll never forget how it made me feel. I left the play feeling shocked but relieved, because it was like I had an awakening, seeing these everyday microaggressions I deal with being played out on stage and sitting with over 700 black people from the community. That hits like nothing else.

I also felt exhausted. It reminded me that I have to go back into spaces where I’m a minority and deal with having to constantly explain myself and experiences to everyone else around me. But I realized I need to speak up more often. I can’t suppress my feelings and thoughts when I’m in white spaces because I think it’s only going to keep building up inside. That’s what literally happened in the play.

And in the end I was also elated, because it was funny. The black community is always going to understand one another, and that’s what makes us so strong as a unit. It feels good to know that we aren’t alone.

3 Black Women on the Experience of Seeing Slave Play