Friday, July 19, 2024

“SLAVE PLAY. NOT A MOVIE. A PLAY.”

THE STORY“Slave Play” was one of Broadway’s most celebrated, genre-bending, and daring productions,  breaking records and receiving critical acclaim for tackling race, sex, and interracial relationships in a way never-before seen on stage. In this playful and provocative documentary, playwright Jeremy O. Harris takes viewers behind the scenes – from run-throughs to performances – as he strips down his own work and directs new actors through workshop rehearsals. While the acting students parse the text and bring meaning to the words on the page, Harris turns his critical eye to the thoughts, inspirations, and creative processes that brought the play to life.

THE CAST – N/A

THE TEAM Jeremy O. Harris (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 79 Minutes


Far too many documentaries feel confined to a standard form as if the director is constructing the film based on a rubric. This is especially discouraging when the subject in question is a particular artist or art style; when the filmmaker seemingly ignores the specifics of the art they’re documenting in the construction of their film, it’s as if they’re saying the aspects of said artist that make their work unique are merely aberrations from the form to which they are dutifully adhering. This is not so with “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” Jeremy O. Harris’ boundary-stretching self-examination comments on the structures of filmmaking and art creation in general and questions the need for such confinements. While it cannot keep from unraveling at a certain point, even its more frustrating elements further underline Harris’ apparent fascination with challenging an audience and forcing the inspection of art’s abilities and shortcomings.

When “Slave Play” first opened off-Broadway in 2018, it was an immediate sensation and source of positive and negative discussion. It follows a trio of present-day interracial couples looking to conquer difficulties in their relationships through a radical type of therapy that sees them role-playing sexual scenes inspired by and taking place during the Antebellum South. Using this template, the play examines racial biases that have reverberated far beyond this 19th-century setting and questions how to overcome them, if they can be overcome at all. It’s the kind of play that stretches the very definition of “challenging” and the hyperbolic reactions (in all directions) to its 2019 Broadway run, seemingly proving the play’s point about these wounds being far from healed. The play was nominated for 12 Tony Awards – the record for a play at the time – and led to a Broadway remount following the New York theatre’s reopening in 2021, along with a 2022 production in Los Angeles.

Ever since his play brought him to mainstream attention, Harris’ star has continued to rise. He wrote the well-received screenplay to “Zola,” acted on TV shows “Gossip Girl” and “Emily in Paris,” and received an additional pair of Tony nominations as a producer. With “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” he steps into the director role for the first time. But, unlike most filmmakers, Harris doesn’t hide behind the camera. In fact, he could even be called the main character. The film shows him leading a workshop of actors working through scenes from “Slave Play,” talking about the play and his post-mortem thoughts on its Broadway run, and even constructing the very film we’re watching in the editing room.

In fact, the documentary covers so many disparate topics and opens so many discussions that it simply doesn’t have time to give all of them a complete overview in the film’s 79 minutes. Several interesting subjects are introduced and quickly moved past without as much time spent on them as one may wish. It feels like reading the syllabus for a seminar rather than attending the entire seminar itself. The collage-like structure eventually winds its way to a hyper-meta final section which shows Harris editing the very footage that viewers have been watching, often immediately after it’s been played for the audience. Harris is shown to be hyper-aware of the potential for self-consumption that comes with introducing such a filmmaking concept, even calling it an “ouroboros.” This leads to a feeling of uncertainty as to how the film will resolve itself. It’s a radical approach to take, but when the film makes it clear from the start that it will be examining the very nature of the narrative and dramatic process, it should come as no surprise that the documentary itself would eventually be near unspooling. Still, it’s captivating to watch, even if the director himself seems to be making excuses for his own film and attempting to counteract critique within the film itself.

Undoubtedly, the film is at its best when it lives up to its title and resembles a filmed play. The scenes of actors reading and performing from the “Slave Play” script are captivating. Harris brilliantly includes multiple takes of the actors and different readings from various actors playing the same roles, oftentimes simultaneously through split screens. This cinematic portrayal of the theatre’s exploratory nature highlights the medium’s necessity. In these moments, Harris’ clear affection for the unpredictability of live performance is apparent and understandable. No performance is the same twice, leading to a host of possible interpretations of the same material. In that way, “Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play.” presents its viewers with several potential ways to look at Harris’ text. He clarifies that there’s no wrong way to take art in as long as you’re doing it with your mind turned on.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Jeremy O. Harris builds an expansive, creative documentary that examines the process of putting art together and the difficult conversations to which it can lead. Captivating and experimental. Pushes the very form of documentary filmmaking.

THE BAD - The short runtime can’t comfortably contain all the talking points upon which the film touches. Eventually, it begins to feel as if the film is unraveling in real time.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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Cody Dericks
Cody Dericks
Actor, awards & musical theatre buff. Co-host of the horror film podcast Halloweeners.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Jeremy O. Harris builds an expansive, creative documentary that examines the process of putting art together and the difficult conversations to which it can lead. Captivating and experimental. Pushes the very form of documentary filmmaking.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The short runtime can’t comfortably contain all the talking points upon which the film touches. Eventually, it begins to feel as if the film is unraveling in real time.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"SLAVE PLAY. NOT A MOVIE. A PLAY."