Jeremy O. Harris’s phone was binging like a hijacked “Jeopardy!” buzzer on Thursday afternoon, after the Tony nominations were announced. “I’m sorry,” said the 31-year-old playwright. “I’m just so excited!”
His “Slave Play” racked up 12 nominations over all, the most ever for a play and a sign of approval for a searing production about sex and racism that made its way to typically risk-averse Broadway. The New York Times critic Jesse Green described it as a mix of “satire, minstrelsy, comedy and drama” that presses “every outrageous button.”
In an interview, Harris discussed the cultural impact of “Slave Play,” how the reaction to it might be different now, and potentially becoming the first Black playwright to take home the top honor since August Wilson in 1987 for “Fences.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How are you feeling right now?
I’m freaking out! I was on FaceTime watching the nominations with my mom and my nieces and nephew, and it was insane. I had to turn it off halfway through because they were finding out before me and screaming about things.
If “Slave Play” wins, you would be the first Black playwright since August Wilson won for “Fences.”
It’s crazy that I wasn’t born yet the last time a Black playwright took home the Tony for Best Play. There are a lot of issues with the white maleness of the Tonys, but the 12 nominations feels like a statement from the community saying that right now, we do want to focus on Black lives. The last time a play was nominated this much was “Angels in America,” which was the most influential play for me as a teenager.
What cultural impact have you seen the play have?
It was very evident in the way that “Slave Play” was on so many protest signs and reading lists during the last six months that it has moved the culture to think about Black interiority and Black literal death and the history of Black bodies in a way that’s significant. It feels very invigorating that the community is saying that people want to have that conversation right now.
How do you think the reaction to “Slave Play” would be different if you were to stage it now?
Some people are learning that discomfort is necessary. There is a moment in the play that people thought was really offensive and hyperbolic, when Kaneisha calls her husband a virus. Moments like that, language like that, would make more sense for people now. Someone said on CNN at the beginning of the protest movement that white supremacy is a virus, and I think those sorts of things helped frame the play a little differently than before. I don’t want to say better, because there was certainly a psychological denial that was happening because people hadn’t witnessed an Amy Cooper. A lot of people were like, “I voted for Hillary,” and “I loved Obama,” and “I’m not racist, how dare this young Black playwright say I might be racist, I have a Black wife!” And now I think people are saying “Oh, wait, a second, I get what he might have been saying now.”
What do you hope people took away from the show?
So much of the work of “Slave Play” was about engaging the Greek responsibility of what a theater artist is. People shouldn’t go to the theater just to watch or be entertained, they should want to change something about the society they’re living in. I hope that in this moment, people don’t stop thinking about the questions of “Slave Play” and donate to causes like Black Lives Matter.