In our most recent issue, we spoke to the creative on his groundbreaking work Slave Play and staging racism.
By Juno Kelly.
Growing up, Jeremy O. Harris was precocious. A theater-obsessed, hyper-academic child, he learned early on how to use his intelligence to quell bullies around him. When his cousins attempted to “beat the queerness out of him,” he would cripple them with his vocabulary. “If there was some brusque loudness in how my cousins would call me whatever they were gonna call me, I could come back with the same sort of brusque loudness and use some word that they don’t know,” he tells me. Harris employed the same technique years later, at his mostly white private school, surrounded by families who, in his words, “still probably cringe at the idea that someone would say, ‘Black lives matter.’ I could always let them know that I knew something that they didn’t, and that made me better than them.” It was these relationships that Harris credits with building his strength of character: “It helped me protect the flame that would become my self-worth.”
That strength of character is precisely what strikes me when I speak to Harris over Zoom one March evening. Even on an audio-only call, Harris is effervescent. Whatever the X factor is, he has it. Regularly punctuating his sentences with an enthusiastic “Right?”, he expounds shrewd takes on everything, from adapting books for screen to how the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s relationship played out on the world stage, which, I suppose, is what you would expect from a Tony Award-nominated playwright.
When we speak, Harris has just woken up from a 13-hour sleep in his New York apartment, where he resides with his newlywed roommates, despite earning more than $1 million in 2020 (perhaps a side effect of giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars last year to help salvage what’s left of the theater industry). The playwright spent most of lockdown in London, after his play Daddy, scheduled for a three-month run at the city’s Almeida Theater after a successful stint off-Broadway, was postponed due to the pandemic.
Although Harris’s Slave Play was what catapulted him to stardom—at the time of writing, it had been nominated for a record-breaking 12 Tonys, but the winners had not been announced—Daddy was the first play he wrote and what served as his ticket to the prestigious MFA playwriting course at Yale School of Drama. It depicts the (at times salacious) relationship between a middle-aged white art collector and his significantly younger Black boyfriend at the former’s Bel Air home.
The extent to which writers are involved in a play’s staging has long been a source of debate in the theatrical community. Harris, however, has no qualms about admitting that he’s heavily involved in the process. “I’m a part of every part of the plays that I do,” he says. “I choose directors who I think have similar taste to me.” He did, however, (reluctantly) heed advice to cast an actor with celebrity status for the US staging of Daddy. As such, seasoned performer Alan Cumming (of The Good Wife and Broadway fame) played the fevered “daddy” trope. “It was a huge leap of faith, because the idea of working with a celebrity was very frightening for Danya [Taymor, Daddy’s director] and me,” Harris explains. “Luckily, we had Alan, who from the very first reading of the play seemed to understand the work we wanted to do.”
After Slave Play opened on Broadway in the fall of 2019, it was met with a slew of reviews both heralding and attacking its visceral, “controversial” nature. Its story revolves around three interracial couples undergoing sex therapy to address the fact that the Black partners no longer feel attracted to the white partners—or as Harris puts it, how “Black bodies feel in relationship to white power.”
Image credit: Gus Van Sant Courtesy Of Gucci.