Sep 17, 2019 . 31 min read
A candid conversation with the author of the Broadway-anointed 'Slave Play' on the challenges—and pleasures—of bringing black stories to white spaces
With the announcement that his critically acclaimed and controversial Slave Play would open on Broadway in October, playwright Jeremy O. Harris tweeted that 10,000 tickets would go on sale at the drastically reduced price of $39.
Two things were clear: Harris intended to bring new audiences to the appropriately named Great White Way, and he had little interest in playing by the rules of literary theater, onstage or off. Add to this the fact that his first movie credit—Zola, based on a viral Twitter thread, produced by A24 and starring Riley Keough—is in postproduction, and you get the sense that Harris’s voice is one we ignore at our peril.
Play is the important word in Slave Play: It acts as a verb, hinting at the performative demands of race, gender and sexual identity. The piece stunned sold-out audiences last winter at New York Theatre Workshop, following a student production at the Yale School of Drama, from which Harris, now 30, graduated this year. During the show’s previous runs Harris liked to sit in the house and guess who would leave during the first act—five disorienting and sexually explicit scenes between interracial couples that appear to take place on an antebellum plantation. He would watch the audience (including the white people filling most of the seats) watch itself, nervously checking for cues: Laugh? Cringe? Walk out?
For the off-Broadway run, a mirror spanning the back wall literally placed the audience’s reflection onstage. In the first few minutes of the play, as a young black actress wearing slave garb twerks before a white man wielding a whip, spectators didn’t have to crane their necks in order to gauge their neighbors’ reactions; they needed only to watch their reflections. (The set could also be viewed as the digital town square, where we constantly check other people’s thoughts before trotting out our own, simultaneously judging others and ourselves.) As the first act reached its denouement, the audience would realize, with a combination of gasps and sighs of relief, that the playwright had considered all these implications.
Harris was raised primarily in the depressed factory town of Martinsville, Virginia, and his mother sacrificed so he could be educated in private schools. Her son, no doubt, was preternaturally gifted: He has a brain like a bullet train, rocketing between the most brilliant scholars on race and theory and the most exciting (and almost entirely female) artists in hip-hop. He’s a queer black writer who has obsessed over James Baldwin—all of Baldwin, not just the dutiful race man. He’s well-versed in Saidiya Hartman and mentions L.H. Stallings’s Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures the way others recommend a hot new album. In fact, Slave Play earned him a fan in Rihanna, whose song “Work” features throughout the play and who shares his naughty and complicated approach to sexuality and performance. (Harris interviewed the pop star for a New York Times T Magazine cover story this spring.)
I’m interested in how I can use my voice to challenge a canon I was trained in.
Three days after Slave Play’s Broadway run was announced, PLAYBOY sent filmmaker, writer and Surviving R. Kelly executive producer dream hampton to meet Harris at Sunday in Brooklyn, a popular south Williamsburg restaurant. Wearing a sleeveless floral wrap dress, his afro adding inches to his six-foot-five frame, Harris was sun-kissed from a recent Fire Island retreat. The restaurant happened to sit a block away from the former Domino Sugar factory where artist Kara Walker presented her monumental 2014 installation A Subtlety: a 35-foot-high sculpture of a black woman—posed like a Sphinx, wearing a mammy head-scarf and baring her vulva—as a complex commentary on chattel slavery and plantation economics.
The work comes up implicitly in Harris’s play Daddy, which ran off-Broadway to more acclaim and controversy early this year. In a conversation between the protagonist, Franklin, a young black artist, and Andre, his white art-dealer “daddy” (played by Alan Cumming), Harris makes a crucial distinction: “Beauty is beauty is beauty, Franklin,” says Andre, “no matter whose eyes are seeing it.” Franklin replies, “It’s a nightmare or a dream you’re witnessing. But I share it.” The unfixed dynamic between the two men, with its transactional and exploitative shadows, elicited some scathing social-media threads. Controversy aside, it’s easy to imagine interracial couples who attend Harris’s plays having similar debates.
Hampton, who interviewed Me Too founder Tarana Burke for our Summer 2019 issue, reports: “Harris evokes the experimental wing of the late-1960s and early-1970s Black Arts Movement, which gave us wild plays like Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro—transgressive, formally daring works written at the height of the black power and feminist movements and the free-love revolution. When I saw the online pushback against Harris, it reminded me of the many ways Kara Walker was accused of anti-blackness. Because she ‘plays’ with images of chattel slavery, Walker has infuriated a vast range of critics. It seems many of us aren’t willing to engage with collective cultural trauma in that way. But Harris is, and like Walker he’s accruing mammoth success in rarefied spaces even as he colors far outside the lines. His refusal to offer easy answers or present static identities, for his characters or himself, is what I wanted to hear more about—starting with the choice to take his work to the overwhelmingly white and upper-class environs of 42nd Street.”
PLAYBOY: As Slave Play heads to Broadway, you’ve been on Twitter, offering deeply discounted tickets. A Guardian review of Slave Play’s New York Theatre Workshop run said, “If the fantasies of white people are transmitted to us through film and weaponized as policy, do they need to be repeated in the theater—perhaps the whitest of white spaces?” I’m wondering about the white gaze and how it factors into your work.
HARRIS: I think we’re in a moment now when a lot of makers and audiences of color are very conscious of the white gaze in a way that’s really exciting. It’s partially because theory has become much more a part of our natural discourse. Tumblr started that, and now everyone has a casual relationship to Saidiya Hartman.
PLAYBOY: Or Laura Mulvey or Roland Barthes.
HARRIS: Exactly. It’s wild. Living in a space of ideas can separate us from feelings sometimes—which isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a fact of thought. One of the things I like about being a dramatist is that I get to play with where pathos and logos exist inside my work and put them in a lot of different spaces. But when it comes to the white gaze and how it intersects with black thought, I think a lot of times we’re not using our full thought in public spheres, because there are certain spaces where we’re very protective of black bodies in relationship to whiteness and some places where we have no interest in taking care of them—even in the online discourse around what it means for a black woman to be twerking for a slave owner in front of a white audience. For instance, YG literally released a music video with black people dressed as slaves; there’s also a lynching scene. I don’t know if people know this about rap music, but it’s pop music, and a lot of white people are listening to it. What does it mean to Cardi B to be doing the “Money” music video and twerking in a glass box for a group of white people? I feel those sorts of interrogations don’t happen as publicly or as loudly as some of the interrogations around what it means for a character in a film or a play.
PLAYBOY: So why make work in those contexts? Why work in literary theater instead of urban theater?
HARRIS: Part of the reason is because I’m more interested in how I can use my voice and the spaces I come from to challenge a canon I was trained in. I just know that canon, and it exists inside literary theater. So part of my work with the white gaze is about forcing white people to look at my body differently than they’ve had to look at it before. Maybe that means making people look at abject parts of the black body, or making people look at the black body in pain and ecstasy in ways they wouldn’t with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
PLAYBOY: I don’t want to give too much away to readers who might see Slave Play on Broadway, but you have this reveal about 35 minutes in when the audience realizes they’re watching something inside of something else. When you’ve sat in the audience, have you ever noticed a sigh of relief at that moment?
HARRIS: It’s interesting, because the first act is sort of an endurance test. Some white people are like, “This is the most disgusting and offensive thing I could ever see. What are you doing to me? Why are they laughing?” And some black people are like, “What the fuck is this? Why is she laughing? Why is he laughing?” And then there are other black people in the room who are like, “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” I’ve noticed a lot of my friends who grew up in the South are able to enjoy the first act as pure satire and camp. They already know from the top that something’s up in a way that I think a lot of my friends from the North have a weirder time with. It’s just a very different understanding of that type of performativity.
After the shoe drops at the end of act one, you hear all sorts of gasps echo throughout the audience, and it’s exhilarating. Just before that moment, there’s always about two or three couples who have already grabbed their bags and are ready to leave. And then “the thing” happens. Sometimes they stop, but sometimes they’ve already walked out. There are always these interesting things, seeing the people who were about to leave be like, “Wait a second.” They stay and then go into this more meditative space for another hour and a half.
I wasn’t a fighter when I was little, but I did have a mouth on me—a mouth sharpened with the tools of white supremacy.
PLAYBOY: I’m sure you’re familiar with Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s New Yorker piece “The Chitlin Circuit,” written in response to a speech given by August Wilson in 1996. Wilson was basically beating up on black audiences for not showing up for his plays. Gates wrote this epic piece saying that, actually, black people are going to theater in record numbers; they’re just not going to see Wilson’s shit. They’re going to see Tyler Perry put on by drug dealers and starring retired R&B artists. Can you talk about that kind of schism?
HARRIS: I’m not someone who had the privilege or the money to go to New York and see plays growing up. I also didn’t have a family that was very interested in allowing me to do that; they were like, “You like plays? We like plays. Let’s go see Tyler’s play in Greensboro.” It was startling to me the first time I ever saw an off-Broadway theater, because it was so much smaller than the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, where I’d seen Tyler’s work. Tyler did a show for thousands of people multiple nights in a row. When I did the show in New York, I was like, “Mom, this is a huge deal. There are like 200 seats in that theater. Huge deal.” Like a lot of young black theater artists who grew up in working-class environments, I hated Tyler Perry. I thought he was the death of all things good. It was righteous to say that. It situated me in a different space of class. I was like, “I’m not broke. I like good theater. I like August Wilson. I like Adrienne Kennedy.”
PLAYBOY: What, if anything, turned you around on Tyler Perry?
HARRIS: About six or seven years ago, I thought, Wait a second: Tyler Perry is doing the exact same thing that all the downtown experimental white people are doing with stereotype, with a sort of associative dramaturgy. He’s actually working in a space of experimental theater that I think a lot of people don’t know or recognize because he’s black and because his work is Christian. If people just studied the text and what he’s doing dramaturgically, they would see that it looks more like a Wooster Group show than not. I became obsessed with him.
Something really curious to me is that there are all these conversations around black artists working in this space in the theater: If you’re in the August Wilson tribe of playwrights, it doesn’t matter how many white people you write your plays for or how many white people see your plays; you’re still in that tribe and you’re doing the right black thing. But there are certain black people who aren’t doing the right thing, and they’re making a place for white people. Actually, when Slave Play was first being talked about as moving to Broadway, it was annoying because you had to have all these meetings with landlords. Broadway is basically run by four different companies, and if for some reason they don’t vibe with your work or don’t see it as viable, they don’t have to rent to you. There’s a lot of politicking, a lot of people moving a lot of things and a lot of talking to a lot of white people with a lot of power. At a certain point I turned to one of my commercial producers and said, “Dude, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to go to any more meetings. I’m in grad school. At this point in my life I’d much rather rent out the Kings Theatre and invite Rihanna to come see it there—because she would come, and it would actually be more cool for me. Maybe it’s better if the play is just one of those weird New York phenomena that happen in Brooklyn and never go anywhere else. Then I can sell seats for $13 if I want.”
PLAYBOY: The Kings Theatre, of course, is in the predominantly black neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn.
HARRIS: Anyway, that ended up not happening. But it has been part of my thinking for a long time that if none of us wanted to do these plays for white people, or if we didn’t want to do them in these white spaces, we wouldn’t. But there’s something about the little clout you get by being in that spotlight, or even just the training we’ve all gone through where we’re just, “I can’t waste all this time I spent reading Chekhov to go to Atlanta and hang out with people who don’t know what The Seagull is.” You know what I mean? I’m excited about the ways we can hopefully start destabilizing these systems of power inside the literary theater world so that we can have more intersections and so that conversations around Tyler Perry being one of the most influential playwrights on black working-class makers in general can finally start to be part of the academic understanding of what theater is.
Slave Play, Daddy and [2016’s] Water Sports—it’s exciting that those were the first three plays I wrote, because they were all trying to make sense of what my black body means after being, in a sense, kidnapped by white supremacy. Kidnapped because we grew up in a place with very few spaces to keep a black child safe, and one of the places my very young mother decided was the safest for me was in a private school where I was one of the only people of color. You learn very quickly when someone’s shaping or positioning you to end up with the potential to have a better life than they’ve had, or a better life than they can foresee anyone else in their environment having.
PLAYBOY: How did private education change you? How did it find its way into your work?
HARRIS: The place I come from, Martinsville, Virginia, is one of the opioid capitals of the country. It’s like a dead factory town. My mom somehow made it so that I was one of the few black kids to get out of Martinsville and go somewhere else. I think my self-actualization, as I was becoming an adult man, was, What did I give up to do that? What did it mean when I was growing up that I did at times weaponize the intellect and tools of white learning that I had to make myself feel I had some armor against homophobia or whatever? I wasn’t a fighter when I was little, but I did have a mouth on me—a mouth sharpened with the tools of white supremacy. So when I was cutting some of my cousins with these fucked-up words, I was also cutting myself. I think a lot of my self-actualization has been me learning how to heal those cuts and processing what my body means in this white world.
All the characters in my plays have been trying to self-actualize outside the space of whiteness. I think what people might find troubling in my plays is that they’re seeing the self-actualization happen in the third act, because I want them to actually experience that cutting, those bruises, those bumps and scrapes that you get as you navigate as a black body through white supremacy, as a queer body through white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. And as a female body in all these spaces as well—something I observed my mother and sister and grandmother do. I want you to sit inside that so you understand their self-actualization. One of the beauties of drama is that you can watch someone have an epiphany in real time, and it might force you to have some new self-actualization or to move into some new evolution in your own psychic journey.
PLAYBOY: Before we move on from Slave Play, I want to talk about the giant mirror on the set, which literally puts the audience—again, mostly white people—onstage. Can you talk about that choice?
HARRIS: First of all, I was really nervous about getting a director, because I’d talked to four directors and none of them said the right thing. I would always ask, “By the way, what kind of set are you thinking of for this?” They would always be like, “I don’t know,” or they’d say something truly crazy. The only answer I wanted was that it would feel like I was inside a plantation. That was the whole thing. It’s how I’d done it at Yale when my friend Em Weinstein directed it. The first thing we did was work with this kid, Gordon Landenberger, and we told him, “We want to feel like we’re in a plantation. They’ve given us a $200 budget. How can we do that?”
PLAYBOY: And he put the mirror on the set?
HARRIS: No, at Yale it was a three-quarter thrust stage. The way we did it was we laid out the entire foundation of a plantation in tape, and it looked like a map of a plantation. All the seats were on top of it, and you could see everything. And so the first plan we had was that we were going to all be in the round in the New York Theatre Workshop, and in our first conversation with Robert O’Hara [director of the off-Broadway and upcoming Broadway productions], the first thing out of his mouth was “You know what we’re going to do? We’re gonna put these motherfuckers in the goddamn plantation.” But they couldn’t afford it; they didn’t have the money, and we were so angry. Then Clint Ramos, our set designer, who’s a genius, said, “I think I have an idea.” He made this mirror backdrop, and immediately we knew this was the set it had to be. Part of what was really fun about doing the play at Yale, with the three-quarter thrust, was everyone watching everyone else. I saw everyone become hyper aware of the black people sitting across from them, or the white people sitting across from them, or the mixed-race couple sitting across from them, or the mixed girls sitting right there. The racial project of America went into stark focus inside the room, especially during the second act. We saw people shifting uncomfortably, people looking at partners, people not knowing if it was okay that they’d just laughed, because they saw someone else on the other side freaking out. For me, I’ve only ever wanted to work inside a theatrical space where people have to be in conversation with each other after they leave.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of uncomfortable reactions, I want to ask you about that Trump midriff tee you were photographed in a few years ago. I’m sure you’ve seen that photo used against you many times. What’s the story there?
HARRIS: That photo is used all the time. My friend Nimrod took that picture when he came to visit me at Yale. I was so hyper and excited that I was a first-year student at Yale, you know? I got that shirt from a friend who was doing a documentary series, basically filming the GOP thing, and I’m such a loud and proud aggressive liberal. I’m also a loud and aggressive troll at times, because I’m a Gemini, and when they saw the shirt they were like, “Oh my God, Jeremy will fucking love this.” Actually, it was going to be in the first version of Water Sports; I got it right before I started school, and Water Sports was the play we were doing then. I was always getting these weird downtown Los Angeles plays. I’d done a play where Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof are siblings, and it was this insane, crazy thing. So everyone was like, “What would Jeremy do if this was a prop he had?” And I was like, “I actually want to publicly wear this as a crop top and just experience the world like that.” It was that simple. In my mind, when you have maybe a thousand followers who are all your friends, the intent and the impact of what you’re doing always intersect, because every one of those thousand people knows who the fuck you are. So it was difficult to see that picture become weaponized and misconstrued afterward. But I was also like, “I don’t know what to tell you guys. I literally just wrote a play attempting to call out white supremacy even in the minute interactions we have every day. So I don’t know why you would think I would be pro a white-supremacist president.” I sent out a tweet like, “I’m not a Trump supporter. I never was. I’m not an accelerationist. I never was.”
PLAYBOY: You probably wore that shirt before Kanye wore the MAGA hat, though.
HARRIS: Oh, I definitely wore it before he wore the MAGA hat. I 100 percent did it before Kanye did.
PLAYBOY: And you have to understand, when we first saw Kanye in the hat, we thought, Is this a joke? Is this supposed to be ironic? Is he being a contrarian? What was your reaction to seeing him in the maga hat?
HARRIS: I didn’t think he was a Trump supporter until he started talking, and then I knew. This also intersects with the idea of performing wokeness. This will probably get me in trouble, but there are very few people I believe in canceling unless they do physical, violent harm to someone. Unless they do actual harm to multiple people, I’m like, “Wait, let’s figure out where their brains might be.”
PLAYBOY: You don’t believe in canceling?
HARRIS: I think that to cancel is to believe that change doesn’t matter, that change is impossible and that people’s psyches are static. I think psyches are not static, and neither are thought patterns or interests or even our sex and sexuality. Nothing about us is static, so why should we decide that someone’s position is static and therefore they can be canceled? Unless someone has done actual harm to me or my community through action and not just words, I’m like, “Let’s figure out where the fuck they might be coming from or figure this out in a different way.” Or just disengage.
For me, Kanye was one of the only people who actually helped push forward certain aesthetic positions for black artists in hip-hop. Now, did he borrow a lot of things from other artists in order to do that? One hundred percent. That’s a fact, but that’s also a fact of art-making writ large. I think we’d never had such a public artist who was reaching so many people, saying, “Hey, we can also do this.” A concert can be where we intersect with Vanessa Beecroft, you know what I mean? And the same with Beyoncé, who has been doing that so deeply with her videos and how she’s reshaping what the black female cinematic imaginary can be. Is she stealing from Julie Dash? Absolutely—or not stealing but borrowing from Julie Dash and countless other amazing artists. Yes. But now people can google Daughters of the Dust and get it because of a Beyoncé video, and people weren’t getting that before.
So anyway, when Kanye started doing his Trump speechifying, I was like, “What is going on with Kanye?” I had to write about it. I wrote this play called Ye that was in T Magazine. I was just like, “Being someone who has unchecked mental illness for a very long time, who has dealt with major loss and has also been sort of glorified as a full god must make you want to root for another public crazy person—someone who actually might be a path for you to make the sort of change you thought you were going to make through your music and that you’ve seen has only made you money and also created a deeper alienation. You thought that, by getting to one level, you would pass some test and be free of white supremacy.” And he kept hitting up against it. That was his whole fashion journey: “I’m at dinner with Anna Wintour, but you guys won’t give me my own fashion label at a luxury house.” Yeah, because that’s how white supremacy works. You don’t just get to pass one test and go to the end. I can see how that would kind of make you go crazy, and sometimes when you’ve gone a little crazy, the craziest choice makes sense.
So I just saw that on a different scale—but that’s not the point of the T-shirt. The T-shirt was just, at the time, saying, “This is fucking insane. This person is running for president and I’m going to queer this shirt and disrupt it.” I think in the spaces I was wearing it, I did disrupt, but it has disrupted my own life in ways I didn’t expect. So thanks, Trump.
Sometimes when you’ve gone a little crazy, the craziest choice makes sense.
PLAYBOY: And thank you for that digression on Kanye. Of course his wife provided great cover for him by working with the administration and also by kind of gaslighting us: “Watch me get two black women out of jail.”
HARRIS: She’s such an interesting case to me. Because what she has done is kind of like gaslighting, it’s very difficult to critique. I don’t even know what space this is intersecting. I don’t know what else she talks about in those rooms when she’s making these deals, which is crazy. And what does it mean that she’s devoting her life to justice? Is it just for the good look and the bob, or does she actually want justice for different people?
PLAYBOY: Let’s shift to Daddy and its references to Kara Walker. Like her, you’ve had success in your 20s. I saw Walker attacked as an artist when she first came out, and I’ve seen her be rightly reconsidered in recent years. In Daddy, Franklin, the protagonist, argues with the white “daddy” character about A Subtlety, which is of course about sex and slavery, as is much of your own work. What about you: Where do you stand on Walker?
HARRIS: I think I’ve always been more interested in work that gets a big reaction from people than ones that get a small reaction. I remember being 15 or 16 and reading about Walker and just thinking, Who is this woman, and why does her work look like a cartoon? I just couldn’t stop looking at the images. But as I’ve matured, even as her work got problematized and then reconsidered, I’ve always thought that at least she’s saying something. Most of her inquiries have been around the histories of chattel slavery on the black erotic and the black erotic imaginary. She’s saying it in her full voice, and I like people who talk in their full voice.
PLAYBOY: You sound as though you’re describing your own work.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think those things were really palpable for me. Part of it is because I’ve always been able to clock where desire is living in a space or in a room. When I was in fourth or fifth grade I told my mom that my stepdad was cheating on her. I just saw it and was like, “Oh, Dad is lying. That’s what’s happening.” My mom found out because of me. So I think I have an attraction to people who seek out the erotic or where desire lives inside their work—especially where desire and violence intersect. Those things drew me in really quickly early on. I’m excited to see how I’m moving away from that in my new writing, to get to other spaces around the erotic—spaces where violence maybe exists in different ways. The play I’m working on now, Black Exhibition, is more about where the erotic or desire intersects with capital and what that means for my identity.
PLAYBOY: One of my questions was about how the erotic can be used to combat racism and white hegemony. There are also questions around how it can be used to combat racial capitalism or, say, ecological disaster. Can the erotic be used to push back against all these things?
HARRIS: Sometimes I wonder, despite what my work is doing, if in some ways I’m still a Southern prude. I have a lot of friends who are Forest Faeries. For some people it’s a spiritual thing, but for others it’s actually political. I was like, “Is it a politic to be a funky white gay fucking in the forest?” I’m not sure, because I don’t know what that liberates us from or how that destabilizes anything other than the position of your penis. But I also think their presence in Tennessee does displace some sort of power structure ingrained there. But where I see the power of the erotic really having an unimpeachable force is in art. When the erotic hits art, something in the air changes. Did you see the Jermaine Dupri–Cardi B thing?
PLAYBOY: Dupri basically dismissed all contemporary female rappers as “strippers rapping.”
HARRIS: There’s something really interesting about this man’s deep anger over these women getting so popular by talking about the same things that men have talked about in every single one of their songs forever. I was truly confused. I was like, Do you listen to men rapping? In every song that DaBaby has put out this year he’s talking about how he’s going to fuck someone’s girlfriend or someone’s wife, or how everyone’s trying to get on DaBaby’s dick, and that’s why we love DaBaby. DaBaby’s funny, and he sounds sexy, and you’re like, “Cool, DaBaby!” But Cardi or Saweetie or Megan Thee Stallion doing the same thing—now this is the space that’s not okay.
The black female erotic is something we’ve lived in fear of in our country for centuries, and now we have women who are able to stand and speak in a full voice about.… I mean, not now. They’re on the backs of all the women who said, “This is who I am. Get into it.” And they’re doing it for seemingly no one but themselves. That’s what always makes me excited about hearing Megan Thee Stallion: She’s doing the erotic for herself. It makes people immediately want to dance, but it also makes a lot of people immediately want to activate their violence against her. Even if it’s just Trey Songz being like, “Yo, when are you gonna let me hit it?” That’s violent. So I think their erotic has the potential to make ripples in that space.
I’m still trying to figure out which ways the erotic can displace identity-politics capitalism. I feel we’re in this space where woke-ness has become capital, and we’ve immediately fallen back asleep inside the American dream, where my identity markers as a queer black man make me a much more profitable person inside a space of capital. It actually gives white supremacy more power, and I’m trying to figure out how I can undo that.
PLAYBOY: Articulating that also affirms the cis-hetero black men who have been attacking you—and me, for my recent work—saying that this success is because of your queerness or our feminism, not because of our blackness. But for now, let’s stay focused on pleasure and the erotic: What was your earliest sexual awakening, and what were your first ideas of pleasure?
HARRIS: I had an erotic life that was very much situated inside this space—and the gesture I’m making is a circle around my head.
HARRIS: Yeah, I had a cerebral relationship to sex and sexuality that wasn’t as immediate as that of some of my friends who’d discovered porn. I was genuinely like, “What is that?” The first thing I ever masturbated to was Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” video when I was in about eighth grade. I put off masturbation for a really long time. I think it was because a deep part of me knew I was gay and didn’t have an outlet for that besides my best friend, who is also gay but with whom I would never have wanted to experiment, because he was like my brother. I had a lot of girlfriends, and for me a lot of the pleasure came from the intellectual space we got to live in together. It wasn’t until I went to college and started to have fervent hypersexual relationships that I started to realize, Oh, I actually would rather have sex with a man. That was an accumulation of watching a lot of foreign films and realizing I was more and more drawn to ones with men at the center of the erotic life of the film.
PLAYBOY: What’s an example?
HARRIS: The Dreamers was major. Y Tu Mamá También was major. A lot of French movies, like Swimming Pool—I love that one so much. The movie that made me most like, Okay, Jeremy, you need to really check yourself, was Fish Tank, which has become a big space of conversation today because of Andrea Arnold. I remember watching Michael Fassbender in that movie and thinking, Oh, I’m gay. So I broke up with my girlfriend—it was a whole thing. And then I started actively sleeping with men right after I turned 19.
PLAYBOY: I find that—and this is me talking to you from a different generation and having a Gen Y daughter—there’s a lot of asexuality with kids. I don’t want to be too reductive and blame everything on tech, like, “Y’all just text everything,” but everything has become more cerebral. I’m not trying to crack the code, because it’s not mine to crack, but it’s interesting.
HARRIS: Well, our generation is having less sex than previous generations, which has been crazy to talk about. I had this deep, romantically enriching relationship that was completely asexual for about six months. I had to stop. I was like, “Wait, what is going on? I feel like at any other time in my life we would have had sex already. This makes no sense.” They were like, “But I don’t want that. Isn’t it possible for us to be soulmates who don’t have sex?” And I was like, “Maybe?”
PLAYBOY: Yes. The answer is yes!
HARRIS: But I knew that something I would want from my soulmate is the sort of erotic potentials you don’t have with a roommate or a best friend.
PLAYBOY: Okay, my last questions are about success. I recently did a project that more people watched than anything else I’ve done in my life, and I know you’ve been dealing with similar levels of attention and acclaim. This sounds mad entitled, but success can be burdensome. Demands are put on you, and you start to understand every Hollywood story that ends in drugs or suicide or some other tragedy. I don’t mean to pose this as a typical self-care question, but how do you stay sane?
HARRIS: I don’t do anything enough. I’ve been trying to meditate at 2:30 every day using Headspace. It’s the best, but I don’t do it enough. I’m trying to force myself to start reading again, because one thing that started to happen when things got so fast was that I stopped reading. I used to read every new script that no one else had read yet. I’m also trying to get out of thinking only about myself, because that’s the real trap: constantly talking at your friends about how crazy your life is and forgetting to focus on them. One thing I am consistently getting better at is asking my friends to just download on me—asking what’s going on in their day and actively forcing myself to not shut off and think, Oh, my Broadway thing is happening and I need to.…
PLAYBOY: But how about the work? How are you going to stay focused, inspired, whatever, as your star continues to rise?
HARRIS: I think the thing I’m most afraid of is not being able to have the freedom, the sort of looseness I had with my work that allowed me to write Slave Play or Daddy. Because now I’m constantly thinking about what tweets I’m going to get about the play. Then I’m like, Jeremy, you know who you are; you know why you write; you don’t need the noise. And all these people telling me that they’re going to Broadway for the first time to see my play are making me think, Okay, your impulses are okay. You’re doing something right. Forget about all these other crazy people who don’t actually want to see you as a person. And I’m not saying that people who don’t like the play should be dismissed. I actually want to have a discursive conversation around the role of black artists inside white space. What are the questions that people can have about me being a black queer man who has done a play with a black woman at the center of it? Which is again something I find curious, because every single one of my other plays is about black gay men, so should one always stay in that lane? What is the role of the writer in 2019? It might be that in 2019 we don’t want men to write women, which I’m like, “Great, maybe that’s just what we do.”
I’m excited about the next two plays I’m writing. I tell myself, Jeremy, you’re not going to judge yourself. You’re not going to ask yourself, Is this as good as Slave Play? Is this as good as Daddy? You’re just going to write them with the same sort of energy you wrote all your other plays. I’m really scared of one of them, like, Oh my God, this play has nine men in it. What does that mean? Are you allowed to write a play with nine men in it anymore? I don’t even know, but I just did it, you know? And it feels really good.