Slave Play: the Broadway show sparking an intense debate on race

The drama tackling race, sex and slavery by the youngest black male playwright on Broadway is seeing queues and grabbing the attention of theaters biggest names

Slave Play does not officially open on Broadway until next month, but just a few nights into previews the ground-breaking drama is already sparking an animated debate over race, drawing queues down the street and the attention of some of the biggest names in theatre.

The play, which Jeremy O Harris wrote while he was still in his first year at the Yale School of Drama, tackles race, sex, sexuality and slavery through the lives of three modern day interracial couples against the backdrop of a plantation in Virginia. The Rihanna song Work also features the lyrics to which hang in Manhattans Golden Theatre.

Harris is part of a new wave of diverse theatre-makers and playwrights including Jackie Sibblies Drury, who won a Pulitzer prize for Fairview, and Tarell McCraney, who won an Oscar for Moonlight and whose play Choir Boy was recently on Broadway who are bringing new work and new voices to New York theatre. They are also changing perceptions of what can be commercially successful in the process.

Slave Play, directed by Robert OHara, was performed at New York Theatre Workshop last year, where it attracted rave reviews and sold-out audiences that included stars such as Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg and Scarlett Johansson. It also attracted anger from some in the form of a campaign to shut it down and a petition started by a woman who said it left her offended and traumatized.

But when, months later, it was still being talked about, the shows producers decided to take it to Broadway.

At just 30 years old, and only months since graduating, Harris is now the youngest black male playwright ever to have a play on Broadway, a place where he never expected his work to find a home.

Its really humbling and exciting that a work like this is going to Broadway, but its also raw, he said. Its a lot of different emotions for me because theres a history on Broadway and Im not really a part of it, or people like me arent really a part of it. You can probably count on your hand, on your right hand, the amount of black queer men or women who have had successful Broadway careers.

Theres definitely some energy happening I dont know that I can call it a sea change until its not a surprise that a young, black and queer person is on Broadway and having a show that people want to see, said Harris.

Lead producer Greg Nobile said the golden age of television and social media have helped shift audience tastes. Were seeing actively the conversation about what is commercial shifting pretty radically in real time on Broadway, he said.

To Sullivan Jones, who plays Phillip in Slave Play, Broadway always felt like an elite space. Of course there have been the outliers, but just like a trend of old pieces of theatre that have been composed and worked on by black people, brown people, queer people, and were bringing all of that forth with this, he said.

OHara, who directed both the off- and on-Broadway productions, said the play is incredibly triggering.

Such is the thought-provoking nature of the play that they are holding public conversations on Sunday afternoons for audience members to discuss the play.

During rehearsals, OHara said the cast had a lot of conversations about the nature of race, the nature of sexuality, the nature of interracial love, the history of America, the history of the world. All of that was in the world with us.

They worked with an intimacy director for the plays multiple sex scenes only the second Broadway show to do so.

During rehearsals, he said, the team was predominantly formed of black women. The smallest demographic was white men.

On any given day, two white men in the space. That dynamic does not happen on Broadway normally. Normally its a room full of white people and mostly white men running things, OHara said. That to me in itself led for a different type of conversation in a different type of environment.

On Thursday night, only the fourth night of previews, audience members queued down the street in the rain to get in and the cast performed to an almost full house.

In the auditorium the audience was vocal in their reactions laughing regularly and at one point breaking out into spontaneous applause mid-scene and gave a standing ovation at the end.

Outside the theatre, audience members said it would take time to process the experience.

Sandra Hood, 62, a senior court clerk from New York, said she was attracted to the play by its provocative title and the reviews of its first run. It sounded like something that would make me want to make my own opinion, because it sounded like there was quite a bit of polarity.

She added: Im digesting it Im still sort of scratching my head about what point or points were intended, so its going to be very individual, what you walk away with.

Paris West, 29, a marketing associate from Westchester county, does not go to the theatre very often and when she does, she usually prefers musicals.

She said: Im still processing it. There are a lot of themes. I sat with my mum so Im really interested in how she feels about it, but yeah, it was great I havent seen anything like it before, its very provocative.

Early viewers on Broadway have so far included the author Roxane Gay, who praised it on Twitter, saying it was incendiary and moving and hilarious and brilliant and uncomfortable and painful and true.

Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda enthused: Dear Jeremy, I cant be at opening but Im dying to see your play and Im so excited its on Bway.

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Janeane Garofalo is a tiny thing, but the air around her crackles

I think about all Garofalos combined experience on screen and stage, and smile at how lucky I am to have seen her in the flesh

One of my favourite romantic comedies was released all the way back in 1996, and while it rarely makes it on to the best-of lists, trust me, The Truth About Cats & Dogs isup there with the greatest. Its avery loose play on Cyrano De Bergerac, except in this version aman falls in love with the face andbody of one woman and the voice of another. That other woman is Janeane Garofalo.

As ateen and even now Iconnected instinctively and intensely with hercharacter: acharming, funny, insecure feministradio host. Ihave followed Garofalos career ever since, but herlower profile in recent years means I havent dedicated much brain space to her.

Last week, I went to see her in theBroadway revival of Scott McPhersons family drama-comedy Marvins Room. My findings are asfollows: Janeane Garofalo on stage is just as potent as she is on screen. Her character, Lee, is one oflifes strivers: a bit broken and brittle, a little tart, but possessed ofan iron will to have survived thusfar.

I dont go to the theatre as often asI would like 15 months of living in New York has seen only four visits but every time I am stunned by the intimacy of it. Garofalos a tiny thing, still, but the air around her crackles.

Afterwards, I spent hours looking up YouTube clips. Shes done so much! (Please watch The Truth About Cats & Dogs and Romy And Micheles High School Reunion immediately.) I thought about all Garofalos combined experience on screen and stage, and smiled at how lucky I am to have seen her in the flesh. It was a smug smile, yes.

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World Fringe Day: 70 years of risky, revolutionary theatre

Edinburgh fringe was born in 1947 and its spirit is felt at festivals across the world, where talent is spotted and careers are forged

If youve been lamenting that you somehow overlooked International Yoga Day and Take Your Dog to Work Day then its time to perk up, particularly if you love theatre. Today marks a new event on the international calendar: World Fringe Day.

It marks the birth, 70 years ago, of the worlds first fringe festival after eight companies who asked to be part of the programme of the inaugural Edinburgh international festival (EIF) were refused entry. They decided to perform in Edinburgh during August anyway, resulting in the idea of an open-access, satellite event that is not curated in any way and where all-comers are welcome. Those eight companies have now risen to 3,398 companies on the Edinburgh fringe this summer, dwarfing the EIF and arguably doing more for internationalism.

Search Partys show Growing Old With You, staged at Forest Fringe in 2010 and again in 2016

Fringe is a word that, in some contexts, has taken on negative connotations, as if it might be less worthy of your attention than what is programmed in an official festival. However, it is at fringe festivals across the world from Dublin to Melbourne and Montreal where talent is spotted and careers are forged. If you want to see risk, experiment and new trends in theatre you are more likely to stumble across them at the fringe than at a festival hosting those big co-commissioned pieces of event theatre that endlessly circumnavigate the globe like some cultural Flying Dutchman. In any case, there is an increasing blurring of boundaries between fringe and official programmes as companies work on different scales and in different contexts.

The significant rise in the number of fringes around the world now around 200 suggests that there is a growing audience for such events, just as there is a growing appetite for literary festivals and music festivals. Even little Buxton holds its own fringe, and Morecambe is just about to launch one. They are certainly good for the local economy. The Brighton fringe is estimated to contribute around 10m.

Around the world, fringe festivals bring enormous pleasures to audiences and provide touring opportunities for unknown and emerging companies. Not all operate on an open-access model, however, which means the inequalities of theatre production are perpetuated. Those invited to an official festival will be paid for their labour but very few performing on the fringe will turn sufficient profit to pay themselves. So while in theory anyone can stage a show at a fringe, very few can afford to do so.

Not surprisingly, then, an artist-led fringe of the fringe is on the rise, operating outside of the Edinburgh fringe programme. Forest Fringe taking a break this year started the trend in Edinburgh, and Cameo Live is a newcomer there this year. You never know, maybe in 70 years time well be celebrating World Fringe of the Fringe Day.

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