When You’re 29 and Have a Broadway Sensation
Illustration: Jacob Rochester

When You’re 29 and Have a Broadway Sensation

With the incendiary ‘Slave Play,’ Jeremy O. Harris became…

“A couple white people snuck in tonight, but I’m fine with that,” says Jeremy O. Harris, seated cross-legged on stage in a wide denim skirt. It’s mid-September, and the 30-year-old playwright is basking in historic victory: A preview performance of his Slave Play filled every seat inside the John Golden Theater, nearly all of them by a Black attendee. In attendance was a beautiful brown spectrum of fashionistas and style gods, artists, journalists — but perhaps most important were the young boys and girls who appreciate F. Gary Gray and Tyler Perry scripts as much as those by Adrienne Kennedy and Alice Childress. Those who can’t afford a $200 theater seat, who have become accustomed to feeling excluded by the world of Broadway. These new theatergoers are exactly why Harris made the choice to sacrifice profit for awareness and sell Slave Play tickets for as low as $39. And if the old guard finds itself in front of the Virginia native’s polarizing work, so be it; they’re welcome too. “It’s good,” Harris says. “They get to have my experience whenever I go to a Broadway play.” What follows is Harris speaking about everything that brought him to this stage — and everything that the future might hold.

As told to Bonsu Thompson

The thing that pisses me off about the fucking internet is that people act like they know how I feel or what my goals were. I’m like, “No, motherfucker, you don’t write something called Slave Play thinking it’s going to go to Broadway.” I don’t care how many conspiracy theories you’ve read, you just don’t. You don’t write a play that every single professor at Yale says is trash and decide to keep doing it because you think the white people are gonna love it. You do it because all of your friends liked it.

I know the chances of me going to Broadway ever again are slim to none; I’ve read the history of Black theater. And yet I recognize the fact that I hold a very specific, rare position. Not only am I a Broadway playwright, I’m a Broadway playwright that other people want to listen to for some reason. That’s humbling and amazing, but it also means I have to be very careful about my next moves and how excited I get about the position I’m in now. People don’t like people who publicly critique them. They’ll tolerate it for a moment, for a season, but they generally won’t tolerate it for a career.

#Shutdownslaveplay was mortifying. As someone who grew up on the internet, it’s really difficult to know that sometimes the internet is just trash. It’s not fun to see yourself spoken about out of context, to see your complicated politics distilled to 280 characters. Only thing cancel culture can’t cancel is your spirit. I’ve definitely felt like the internet has gotten close to canceling my spirit — and I’m sure the minute I say this, they’ll say, “let’s ramp it back up.”

What was affirming is that you can still thrive. A bunch of people on the internet were like, “No Black people want to see this play” — but the minute I started ignoring negative criticism in a digital space and started looking around in real life, there were so many Black boys and girls from NYU, Yale, Columbia, all these schools around me. So I decided that maybe the people this play is for are just the people who come to see it, people who are in front of me right now.

[The relationship between race and sex has] always been buried in people’s psyche. A lot of my friends who were born biracial, it’s always on their mind. My friends who went to predominantly white institutions, it’s always on their mind. I think for the white boy who grows up in the Black part of Baltimore, it’s always on his mind in some way.

As far as using therapy as a framework for the play, if you’re not rubbed raw by a two-hour therapy session, then it hasn’t been a very good one. That’s the only way a breakthrough can happen. There are so many rules that people follow subconsciously in order to get plays about Black lives or race produced. I wanted to reject those rules. I see the complexity of being white and male, where everyone on stage is rubbed raw, including the audience from having to sit through this torturous thing. I was like, “Why don’t we get to do this with our work?”

The teacher would always tell me I looked like Arsenio Hall, and say, “Come on, do the whoo, whoo, whoo.” My mom found out and went off, like, “What the hell are you doing to my son? He’s not your clown.”

I’ve been in private school since I was three years old. I went to a Christian preschool and I just remember knowing that I was different because I was the only one that looked like me. Also, I was told I was different. Arsenio Hall was really popular then; the teacher would always tell me I looked like Arsenio Hall, and say, “Come on, do the whoo, whoo, whoo.” My mom found out and went off, like, “What the hell are you doing to my son? He’s not your clown.” That’s when I knew I had to protect myself against even the people that were charged to care for me. I think that’s where I started having my issue with authority.

I was going to school with full Republicans — not half Republicans. People who were running the government in Virginia as Republicans or were about to. I had to deal with homophobia from the white kids the entire time I was in high school and middle school. They just knew better words to say it because they would get in trouble. They wouldn’t call me a faggot, but they would do everything else they needed to do to subtly torture me. Maleness is a toxic thing; for the boys who can’t hide their feminine side growing up, it’s hard no matter where you go.

I thought I was in the closet, but everyone else was like, “You definitely were gay.” I had a girlfriend in high school and a girlfriend my first year of college. But I also was never a liar. There were no models for what sexuality or homosexuality was on television or film. There were no boys I actually felt attracted to at my high school. There were no boys I actually liked except for this senior, but when I was a freshman, the reason I wanted to hang out with him all of the time wasn’t in a gay way; it was because he was smart and cool and he had the body I wish I had. I actually felt more comfortable being around girls, and when I would get really close to a girl, I could kiss them and it wouldn’t be gross. So I’m like, “guess I’m not gay!”

I told everyone I was bisexual after I started watching French films in high school. Something happened when I watched these films. And I told everyone about making out with a guy on my French exchange program. I didn’t lie about who I was because I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have the space to know who I was.

I started finding myself when I moved to L.A. at 22. Getting cut from drama school at 19 forced me to confront this myth that I started to create about myself, that I think every smart kid makes about themselves: They’re perfect, and nothing can ever stop them. Those narratives get you through high school, but the moment I was told I was a loser was when I had to confront the fact that I am poor. I am Black. I am queer. If I want to move in the world, I have to move with the recognition of those things, and it’s a radical recognition that those things aren’t going to stop me because I actually speak both languages. I speak the language of the rich Republican kid and the language of where I come from. How I can fluently navigate both worlds is what I had to figure out in my early twenties.

Maleness is a toxic thing; for the boys who can’t hide their feminine side growing up, it’s hard no matter where you go.

I always knew I was Black and that white supremacy was going to stop me from doing certain things, but if anything, it’s more of a class thing. I think I didn’t understand that I was actually poor. People know from watching Fresh Prince of Bel Air that you can be Black and you can be affected by white supremacy, but if you have enough access to wealth and power, you can get everything you want and go anywhere you want to go. I think that was the myth my mom really believed in. And when I went to a college where aid wasn’t merit-based, I didn’t have a mom that could just pay for me to go to another school.

My mom always made a way out of no way, which is beautiful and amazing. But there does come a moment as a teenager when you’re like, “We literally are that poor. We are massively in debt because my mom has put everything into my career.” My mom is a hardworking lady. But she was paying college tuition for most of my high school and middle school life, so that I could go to a really good college and not have to pay for it. Then I ended up getting cut from my drama school and quitting. It was one of the reasons why going to Yale and graduating before I was 30 was so important to me.

Mom is so proud now. Almost too proud; you can’t do anything with a parent’s pride. I know that she’s worked really hard for this moment, but I’m like, “Thanks, but if I get too excited about this it’s just going to make the fall that happens hurt even more.” They’re gonna make this harder and harder for me to do this again. They’re gonna look at everything I do like, “See, that’s why we don’t let niggas come up here. This is why caring about young audiences doesn’t matter. The only people that matter are the people who can pay $300 for your ticket.”

These are the things I hear running in my head when I go to my theater and see that every single seat is taken by people of color who paid $39, $59, $69 to see a Broadway show, because I made a huge plea that we couldn’t just market to the older Broadway crowd. I was like, “hopefully they’ll just come but I want them to play catch up with the young people.” And that’s been great. That also means our numbers will never look like Hamilton’s; all the tickets that should be bought for $200 aren’t being bought. Knowing that money means more [on Broadway] than culture or evolution, that’s what makes me want to temper my mom’s excitement.

I spend most of my week buying people tickets to my own play. Young kids. It’s fucked up, but I treat it like a drug dealer: If I can get them hooked on this, they’ll be hooked forever. No matter how bad the theater got, I kept going because I saw one good piece of theater. One of the things that set me off was a video of the Wooster Group’s adaptation of Three Sisters. I was like, “Oh, shit. I just saw people living so fully on stage, I wanna watch people live like that for the rest of my life.” It’s the high that I’m always chasing.

The money that you make on Broadway is crazy. I’ve been broke for literally all my twenties and I made it here. Having a quarter of the money I’m making now feels like what the goal has been: To be a playwright that could pay his rent. I don’t know that I’ll ever be comfortable making that much money. I don’t need this. I gave my entire first check from Broadway to the Ali Forney Center so that I didn’t feel guilty. I read a study recently that women and people of color tend to donate their money, and white men tend to invest their money. So, yeah, that’s dark.

I have more recognition, but I have to be tempered about my excitement because this isn’t the moment. The moment is a decade from now when I’m turning 40 and I can look back and be like, “Great. It started with Slave Play and now there’s like 40 plays this decade done by people of color.” The audience now is young and vibrant and the audience for a new play on Broadway looks like the audience for Parasite at Metrograph. That’s what I want.