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A CurtainUp Review
The producers are taking a risk with this uncompromising, graphic, sexually explicit play, that includes full-frontal male nudity. It's about three interracial couples grappling with their personal and socio-politicized issues of identity and power.
What these three very different couples have in common is that they're psychologically conflicted in their intimacy and have committed to being actively dramatic participants in an academically controlled study group. The two-hour no intermission play, although unequivocally satirical in its presentation and performance, could be rough going for many even as it presents a challenge for the easily receptive.
The staging remains virtually intact as necessarily adapted to the larger but still accommodatingly intimate Booth. There are no significant changes in the presentation from what I recall. The exception is a change of one cast member: Joaquina Kalukango who replaces Teyonah Parris. I will restrict my comments to how I reacted a second time and how I could best assess the reaction of the audience at the preview performance I attended. I found myself laughing as hard as I did the first time during the first of the three sections. As intended, the balance of the play takes a darker and more studied turn.
The mirrored, paneled and reflective (of the audience) setting designed by Clint Ramos again displays above it a beautifully painted panoramic view of an antebellum Virginia plantation. It is more impressive than it was downtown as it gives the audience at the Booth the opportunity to see itself reflected within a particularly grand old theater at different times during the play — .not that this devise has not been used before.
The response to the first third of the play was as expected: hearty laughter by many but also something akin to stunned silence from others seated around me. Despite a few walkouts in the first third of the play, one could sense among the rest that they were ready to get into the swing of a shocker of a play.
Three outrageously conceived skits are seen in succession: Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) a sadistic white overseer dehumanizes an intentionally provocative slave Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) by making her eat a cantaloupe off a dirty floor. . . a light-skinned. good-looking, violin-playing mulatto slave Phillip (Sullivan Jones) is humiliatingly subjected to a dildo by Alana (Annie McNamara) his fantasizing/sexually frustrated mistress. . . lastly, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) a white indentured servant is seduced in a highly eroticized liaison with Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) a black overseer.
Without singling any of the actors out, they all appear totally immersed in their roles. All perform their purposefully offensive caricatured roles with comedic brilliance. In the second act, we see them as they are, as real people, amusingly defrocked from their sensationalized period costumes designed by Dede Ayite. Here we see how and why some are guarded and others are in various states of shock, even reduced to quasi emotional breakdowns.
This all happens under the impulsive, sometimes reckless, guidance of two committed if also close to absurdist, therapists — Tea (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio.) Their relationship is good for some laughs in this section which, however, becomes a bit muddled, slow and repetitious. There is way too much theorizing and over processing of the source and the course of each couple's sexual dysfunction. This this over-cooked therapy session tends to drag, it may be exactly what the playwright intends.
Even the final act, a brutal, truth-telling confrontation between Jim and Kaneisha seems less revelatory or healing than designed to serve as yet another shock to our sensory overload at this point. The laughter that has long subsided by the middle of Act II is replaced with a significant distrust as to what exactly the playwright actually believes about intimate black and white relations in America.
. Director Robert O'Hara has firmly rebooted this play about the roles interracial couples must play, choose to play, and/or are destined to play as sexual beings, black or white, or as one character defines himself, 'beige'. My guess is that there is an audience to fill the Booth for its prescribed run. .
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Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris Directed by Robert O?Hara
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood (Gary), James Cusati-Moyer (Dustin), Sullivan Jones (Phillip), Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha), Chalia La Tour (Tea), Irene Sofia Lucio (Patricia), Annie McNamara (Alana), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jim)
Scenic Design: Clint Ramos
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design: Jiyoun Chang
Sound Design and Original Music: Lindsay Jones
Production Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam
Running Time: 2 hours no intermission
Golden Theatre 252 W. 45th St.
For Tickets: 1- 800 - 447 - 7400
From 09/10/19 Opened 10/06/19 Ends 01/20/20
Review by Simon Saltzman based on preview performance 10/01/19
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