Is Broadway Ready for ‘Slave Play’?

The first day of rehearsal on Broadway usually goes like this: Circle up. Make introductions. Offer thanks, express optimism, maybe crack a joke. Clear the room of onlookers, and off you go.

But Robert O’Hara had a more pointed agenda in mind when he found himself in a ring of 75 actors and designers and producers one midsummer morning, in a studio lined by a wheelbarrow, a four-poster bed, and refreshments labeled “dildo cornbread” and “nuts cake.”

Mr. O’Hara is the director of “Slave Play,” Jeremy O. Harris’s raunchy, riveting and risky new work, whose many provocations begin with its double entendre title. Mr. O’Hara, like Mr. Harris and many members of the cast and crew, is black. So with just four weeks to go until the first preview, he ignored the naughtily named snacks and invoked his forebears.

“For many years of my life, I’ve had random white people come to me and ask me about where my last name came from, and I would just look them in the face and say, very politely: ‘Slavery’,” Mr. O’Hara told the rapt gathering at New 42nd Street Studios, quieting the lingering chitchat. “I just want us all to be mindful that it’s because of what our ancestors endured — and survived, and abolished — that we have the audacity to be in this room.”

Upping the ante, he turned to the show’s producers, most of whom are white, and threw down a challenge. “I want you to be mindful of the responsibility that you have, to put the marquee with the name ‘Slave’ on it in Times Square,” he said. “And I would ask you, with every decision that you make, are you upholding the legacy of that name?”

Broadway is a perilous place: Even amid an overall boom, most shows fail financially. But “Slave Play,” which is costing up to $3.9 million to capitalize, is chancy in new ways.

Arriving 400 years after American slavery began, the play, often funny and pervasively unsettling, examines that lingering wound through the frustrated sex lives, and taboo sexual fantasies, of three contemporary interracial couples.

Set on the grounds of a Virginia plantation, its racially charged sex talk and simulated dominance and submission are potentially so triggering that a pre-Broadway production supplied post-show lobby counselors. An internet-based backlash, seemingly fueled by people who had not seen the play, was threatening enough to require stepped-up security, and online vitriol directed at the Broadway production prompted the show’s social media team to disable Facebook and Instagram comments.

The eight-week Off Broadway run at New York Theater Workshop was hailed by numerous critics — in The New York Times, Jesse Green called it “willfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering,” while Wesley Morris deemed it “the single most daring thing I’ve seen in a theater in a long time.”

Among those packing into the 199-seat East Village theater to find out what the fuss was about: Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, Scarlett Johansson and Stephen Sondheim.

The Broadway production is now in previews and scheduled to run for 17 weeks at the 800-seat John Golden Theater. The producers — a team that includes the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, the music manager Troy Carter and the documentarian Abigail Disney (a great-niece of Walt) — need to harness the enthusiasm and, yes, the edginess as they seek to persuade ticket buyers that they will miss out if they don’t catch “Slave Play.”

“This is going to burn fast and bright and hot,” predicted Greg Nobile, the 27-year-old lead producer. “If you want to be part of the cultural conversation, you must see it.”

Many of the participants still can’t quite believe this play, on Broadway, is happening.

“Absolutely, I’m amazed,” said Joaquina Kalukango, the actress playing Kaneisha, a black woman from the American South married to a white man from Britain. “They really said yes to this?”

Courting Curiosity, Not Controversy

Solange’s “Almeda” streamed over a laptop in a capacious photo studio in Koreatown. There were hair people and makeup people and a tailor at a sewing machine; a stylist and a publicist and ad reps and talent managers and who knows how many assistants, one of whom spent the morning steaming racks of clothing that might never be worn.

It was the day of Ms. Kalukango’s portrait shoot, and a lot was at stake.

Online objections to the Off Broadway run had been set off, at least in part, by a photograph in this newspaper, showing Kaneisha, dressed like a slave, twerking for her husband, costumed as an overseer. A hashtag was born — #ShutDownSlavePlay — as well as an online petition, objecting to the play as degrading black women and dishonoring enslaved people.

The criticism, as happens these days, got ugly. Some of it alluded to Mr. Harris’s sexuality — he describes himself as queer — and some featured “homophobia, anti-Semitism and threats of violence,” according to Jeremy Blocker, the managing director at New York Theater Workshop. The nonprofit called the police, beefed up security, and offered car service home for those feeling unsafe.

Cast members, although not surprised that the play was not to everyone’s liking, were troubled by the hostility. “I hope that people will have an eye toward the complexity of blackness, and that blackness is not monolithic,” said Ato Blankson-Wood, a black actor who portrays one half of a gay couple. “Why can’t we just make space for all these experiences?”

But word of mouth was excellent, the production was sold out and the show now has another run. This time, the creative team is determined to control the visuals.

Press photographers are being barred from shooting sex, nudity or the scene in which Kaneisha wears slave garb. “We want to be extraordinarily careful about how we use the images of the play,” Mr. Nobile said. “In the current state of the world, it’s very easy for things to be pulled out of context.”

So there Ms. Kalukango was in that photo studio, perched on a stool, wearing an oversized dress shirt cinched by a vintage corset, and displaying the fleshy interior of a halved cantaloupe. Behind the camera: Deun Ivory, a photographer hired by the production who said, “My goal is to visually document all the things that make black women powerful and beautiful.”

The shirt, said the stylist Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, “speaks to the way that strength in black women is often mischaracterized as ‘masculinity,’” and the corset represents sexual freedom, but also bondage. The melon, a prop in the show, adds mystery.

“So much of our campaign is about generating curiosity,” said Steven Tartick, the executive creative director at the play’s marketing agency, RPM. “What we need people to do is to want to learn more.”

Ms. Kalukango got the role after her friend Teyonah Parris, who played Kaneisha downtown and weathered much of the animus, decided not to join the Broadway production. (Paul Alexander Nolan has remained in the cast as the character’s husband.)

Ms. Parris’s publicist, citing her filming schedule — she is starring in Jordan Peele’s “Candyman” — said she would not be available to speak for this story. But she has supported Ms. Kalukango, who said she decided to audition after being “shocked and excited” by the script, and after Ms. Parris “gave me the green light.”

Ms. Kalukango was warned about likely blowback. “I told her that they will come for us, and they will come hard, and several of them will look like us,” Mr. O’Hara said.

But she said she believes that her character — twerking and all — is honored by the play. “She’s on a journey to own her sexuality, while dealing with the traumas of her past, and she’s very much navigating what it’s like to be a dark-skinned black woman in this society,” she said. “It’s really empowering.”

Her photo has become the heart of the show’s “key art,” featured on websites and posters, as the producers and their marketing team seek to make clear that “Slave Play,” despite a title that might suggest a period piece, is character driven, contemporary — and centered on a strong woman.

“I’m taking back the narrative of what this play is,” Ms. Kalukango said. “You think you know, but you have no idea.”

A Student Provocateur

“Slave Play” was conceived at a party.

Mr. Harris, then an aspiring playwright in his late 20s who was about to start graduate school, was listening to a fellow reveler describe a kink-fueled sexual encounter. Ever the provocateur, Mr. Harris asked whether the man, who was white, would have felt as comfortable making party chatter about his experimentation if the woman he had been having sex with was black.

Squirming partygoers tried to change the subject. Mr. Harris decided to turn it into a play.

“I wanted to make a play that is difficult for an audience to dismiss,” he said. He noted that, during his childhood in Martinsville, Va., he routinely saw Confederate flags and visited plantations on school trips.

“I’m from a place where I saw the ruins of chattel slave trade everywhere around me,” he said. “Its presence is part of my present all the time.”

He wrote the intermissionless three-act work while in his first year at the Yale School of Drama, and from the beginning it was both successful and shocking (he asked for an intimacy director to safeguard the performers during sex scenes). New York Theater Workshop, the birthplace of “Rent,” asked to stage a production, and sent Mr. O’Hara the script.

“I remember reading the first act and going, ‘This play is crazy — why are they always sending me the crazy plays?’” recalled Mr. O’Hara, himself the writer of scabrous, boundary-pushing plays about race and sexuality. “And then I read the second act and became very excited.”

Even before the downtown production began, the play attracted interest from commercial producers — albeit theatrical adventurers with limited Broadway experience and a hunger to highlight new voices.

Mr. Nobile and his producing partner, Jana Shea, read the script, raised $150,000 to support the Off Broadway run, and with that obtained the commercial rights.

The two are an unusual pair — he is a college dropout who runs a seasonal tiki bar in coastal Branford, Conn., and she is a resident of the same town and the mother of one of his childhood friends. Their company, Seaview Productions (named after a street in their hometown) has invested in multiple productions; here they have top billing.

Mr. Harris, who has begun writing for television and film, emerged as the show’s magnetic ambassador, conversant in Afro-pessimism and Harry Potter, Bruce Nauman and Tyler Perry. A garrulous whirlwind, he is also unmissable: 6 feet 5 inches tall and often clad in Gucci, Telfar or Thom Browne.

As luck would have it, among those who saw the show downtown was Mr. Gyllenhaal, who had formed a production company with Riva Marker and wanted to join the “Slave Play” team. Then came Mr. Carter, who was once Lady Gaga’s manager and an executive at Spotify. Mr. Harris’s agent reached out several times to gauge his potential interest, and once he finally read the script, he wanted in.

“I’ve always been involved with very unique artists, and I think Jeremy falls into that category,” he said.

Unlike most of the producers — not only on this show, but on Broadway overall — Mr. Carter is black. But he said that’s not all he brings to the table. “Definitely one of my concerns is making sure there’s a diverse audience, but I didn’t want to just show up as the black producer who answers the black questions,” he said. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to think about diversity and to think about any sensitivities.”

‘Broadway is Old School’

Sidewalk stenciling seemed like the right idea.

It was late July, six weeks before the first preview, and producers had traipsed over to RPM’s Times Square offices to spitball ways to build audience.

How about selling tickets via pop-up vending machines? Placing posters in bodegas? Could they target digital advertising to readers of stories about race? Buy Spotify spots aimed at fans of Rihanna, whose music is featured in the play?

Mr. Harris was in Europe, but everyone knew his wishes. “My priorities are young people and black people,” he had explained.

The conversation turned to guerrilla marketing. Mr. Tartick mentioned a company that used pressure washers to stencil logos onto dirty surfaces.

Everyone was intrigued — the tactic, sometimes called clean graffiti, should be harmless and attention-getting. But Ms. Marker raised a red flag. “Power washing sounds cool,” she said, “but the word ‘slave’ planted all over the city makes me feel concerned.”

The idea was tabled.

Weeks passed, and as a wall of mirrors topped by an oversized Rihanna lyric was erected inside the theater, behind-the-scenes jitters were intensifying. Ticket sales were good, but not great. The sidewalk spray was abandoned — too expensive, too risky. Other unproven ideas were set aside.

“Broadway is definitely old school, and anybody that’s thinking they’re going to come innovate should give that another thought,” Mr. Carter said. “Things are done a certain way. It reminds me of the music industry 10 years ago.”

Producers decided to bank on building word of mouth before the Oct. 10 opening. They packed Monday’s final dress rehearsal with actors, college students and fans Mr. Harris reached out to via Twitter.

“I’m going to go way far back into the mezzanine and cry softly to myself,” Mr. Harris told the crowd just before the performance began. “Enjoy the show. Or don’t. I don’t know — watch the show. And leave the theater and talk about it. That’s why I wrote it.”

For Tuesday’s first preview, Mr. Harris invited a slew of models and designers, in town for New York Fashion Week, and the producers planned a wee-hours after-party at the swanky Edition Hotel, co-hosted by Telfar.

They made 10,000 seats available for $39 a piece, are introducing a digital lottery and an in-person rush system, and are exploring what would be Broadway’s first buy-one-give-one ticket scheme, under which purchasers of premium tickets could also subsidize a seat for someone else.

They hired a specialty public relations firm, the Chamber Group, to broaden media outreach and cultivate African-American micro-influencers. And Mr. Harris is putting together a “black theater night,” Sept. 18, on which they will try to fill the theater with African-Americans, including, he hopes, every living black playwright who has had a play on Broadway — a small group, and the subject of a website Mr. Harris has been developing.

They are also shooting a film-style trailer, buying adds on Hulu as well as spots on the hip-hop and R&B station Power 105.1, and making sure to deploy Mr. Harris, who is sitting for photographs and interviews with multiple magazines and news outlets.

“We want energy from day one,” Mr. Nobile said. “People should be talking about the show.”

Speaking of talking: The production, acknowledging that some patrons will want help processing what they have seen, said it would hold a weekly Sunday morning discussion at a Lower East Side restaurant.

Meanwhile, a team of social media consultants from Marathon Digital have been preparing “community managers” to handle any online blowback. And the production had a public relations firm, DKC, give a media workshop for the cast that included this piece of advice: If there are threats on social media, take a screenshot and alert the production.

So what will it take for “Slave Play” to succeed?

In financial terms, it needs to gross at least 60 percent of its potential to make a profit, and Mr. Nobile is determined to do just that.

But for many of the participants, profit is only one metric.

Mr. Carter argued that the play has already made a difference by boosting the careers of the artists involved, many of whom are working on Broadway for the first time. Mr. Harris said he wants to spark conversation. “This play will be successful if it becomes something that people talk about outside of the space of theater,” he said.

As for Mr. O’Hara, the director, he said there are many ways to measure achievement.

“In a marketplace with ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Ain’t Too Proud,’ I don’t know what success looks like,” he said. “Is it that you made it here and you opened? Is it lasting all 17 weeks? To me it is a success because there is a group of people who have asked us to do it again, and more people can see it and form their own opinions. It’s already a success.”



Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion, and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson

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