‘Slave Play’: ‘Provocative,’ ‘wrenching’ drama is strong Tony Awards contender

Even though it’s early days in the 2019-2020 Broadway season, Jeremy O. Harris’s new drama “Slave Play” has just emerged as the first genuine Tony Awards contender in the play categories. After a critically-acclaimed, if not controversial, start at New York Theater Workshop last year, “Slave Play” officially opened at the Golden Theatre on October 6 for a limited run through the beginning of next year.

Directed by Robert O’Hara, “Slave Play” opens on three couples—Kaneisha and Jim (Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan), Alana and Phillip (Annie McNamara and Sullivan Jones), and Gary and Dustin (Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer)—all navigating the dynamics of power, race, and sex on the MacGregor Plantation. As the play progresses, though, Teá and Patricia (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) enter and disrupt the unfolding narrative in a most surprising way.

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Even though “Slave Play” stepped onto the stage with a lot of buzz from its Off-Broadway run, the critics’s reviews of its current Broadway mounting clearly illustrate why it’s an early contender for Tonys.

In a rave Critic’s Pick review, Jesse Green (New York Times) deems “Slave Play” “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years.” Green calls the first section “outrageous,” the second “hilarious” yet “illuminating,” and the third, notably, “as wrenching a portrait of moral gridlock as anything in Arthur Miller, as weirdly lyrical as Tennessee Williams and as potently heightened as Suzan-Lori Parks.” In particular, Green cites O’Hara because of how he “leavens and deepens difficult material” and Kalukango, whose performance as Kaneisha is “distinct and grave.”

Overabundant with superlatives, Adam Feldman’s (Time Out New York) four-out-of-five star review calls the play “lacerating,” “wonderfully incongruous on the mostly staid Great White Way,” “Brash, smart and gleefully confrontational,” “surprising and transgressive,” and a “thrilling success.” Of the ensemble, Feldman notes the “bravura comedic performances” of McNamara and Cusati-Moyer, and above all Kalukango who “navigates” the challenging final scene “with openness and strength.”

Inspired by both her desire to dialogue about “Slave Play” and address, in small part, the lack of “critics of color writing about art,” Sara Holdren (Vulture) chose to print a conversation she had about the play with scholar and dramaturg Taylor Barfield. Though not a conventional review, Holdren does praise the first third of the play as “strange, troubling (and at times intensely funny),” the final third for its “eviscerating rawness and potential revelation,” and the “nimble, energetic grasp” of the language that pervades the middle. And as Barfield says of the play to close the conversation, “I think it’s best at eliciting a reaction to uneasy dynamics in some of the deepest, darkest, most generationally traumatic aspects of one’s psyche—and then it almost forces you to speak on it, even if it’s just to yourself.”

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While not every theatre critic felt this positively about the work (Marilyn Stasio of Variety, for one, says that much of the play “turns out to run cold”), it seems altogether likely that “Slave Play” will earn a coveted nomination for Best Play at the distant 2020 Tony Awards. At present, eleven new dramas plan to bow on Broadway this season, but the immediacy and relevance of Harris’s play and the critics’s love for it signals that it has a clear path to one of the four or five slots in the top Tony category. And despite its Fall opening and scheduled close in early January, the Tony nominating committee will not easily forget about this particular show when they make their final choices on the nominees three months later.

Just as Harris seems likely to earn a Tony bid for his Broadway bow, so too does his collaborator and director Robert O’Hara. Of the performers under O’Hara’s direction, it seems challenging to single out any one in particular for their awards prospects because “Slave Play” largely hinges on the incredible group dynamic of all eight of its actors. The reviews do point to a few potential Tony nominees for Featured Actor and Actress, though, assuming all eight cast members will remain in those categories.

Foremost is Joaquina Kalukango, who not only received many critical kudos, but also opens and closes the play. Her latter scene in particularly is extremely powerful, as is her commanding presence in the play’s middle section even in the moments when her character Kaneisha is not at the fore. Kalukango’s scene partner Paul Alexander Nolan could also earn a nomination for his work in that haunting finale. Multiple critics also singled out Annie McNamara, who Stasio praised for her “sparkling Broadway debut,” and James Cusati-Moyer, who has a number of standout hilarious and emotional moments in the play’s extended second part. Alternatively, with such a large and universally strong ensemble, the show could run the risk of spreading its support across too many viable contenders and ultimately miss out in the acting categories.

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