Open to Critique: An Interview with Jeremy O. Harris




I MET JEREMY O. HARRIS in late 2010 when he asked to interview me for a Tumblr he had created to publish interviews with queer theater artists. The site, Faggot2Faggot, is still up, and he did interview me, but the interview never ran. What did result from the interview was a nearly decade-long friendship. When we met, I was a 35-year-old playwright and Jeremy was a 21-year-old aspiring writer and actor who had just been cut from DePaul’s undergraduate theater program.

The Jeremy I knew then — buoyant, unfiltered, controversial — is similar to the Jeremy I know now. This is important to note because Jeremy has made a broad cultural splash, which is unusual for a young playwright (or any-age playwright), and it would be easy to imagine this is the result of his deliberate crafting of a persona that appealed to gatekeepers and catapulted him to fame. But my having known Jeremy for so long allows me to see that his persona has grown organically from the young person he was and the artist he was striving to become. Jeremy’s two plays that premiered off-Broadway last season, debuting as he completed his final year in Yale School of Drama’s Playwriting MFA, are the result of hard work that began in a context of isolation and rejection after being cut from his undergrad program. Slave Play explores the challenges interracial couples face around whether to embrace or work to undo the oppressive dynamics that have been foundational in their erotic lives. “Daddy” follows a young Black artist as he attempts to realize his authentic voice amid a deepening intimacy with an older, wealthy white man, while trying to evade his powerful mother who is determined to shield him from a necessary confrontation with adulthood. 

Though seriously interested in political and social dynamics, Jeremy’s plays place an unusual emphasis on the psyche. Like his hero Caryl Churchill, Jeremy wants the social, political, and psychological to intersect in a way that audiences cannot neatly separate out. As he enjoyed a break on Fire Island, Jeremy and I emailed about the upcoming transfer of Slave Play to Broadway, the ways his public persona supports his artistic project, and the complexities of success when you’re an artist with an oppositional relationship to the institutions that are supporting you. 

Photo of the author by Quil Lemons.

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CHRISTOPHER SHINN: You are about to have your first Broadway play. Most American playwrights will only have plays at nonprofit theaters. How does it feel to be 30 years old and have your theatrical vision in a commercial, mainstream space?

JEREMY O. HARRIS: It feels daunting to say the least, not just because of my age but also because of my race. It’s The Great White Way and I’m presenting a play called Slave Play in that landscape. The more money exchanged in service of a play called Slave Play, the more open I am to critique. Off-Broadway I was able to maintain a sense of moral integrity about the endeavor because, as you know, one doesn’t make any amount of money that is representative of the emotional labor required to make anything you find actually worthy of the world. Moreover, because the theater I was working at was juggling two shows running concurrently, I got to do a lot of outreach I’d always imagine might make theater more dynamic because there were fewer hands to hold me back with nonprofit bureaucracy: like giving away free tickets on my personal Instagram/Twitter, being transparent about the inner workings of institutional producing, or even asking board members to pay for seats so that people (mostly young and of color) who came to wait in line could always be guaranteed a spot. So while, for many people less accustomed to coming to New York Theatre Workshop, the audience was majority older and white, I was really proud because I was there every night and seeing more young people and Black people than I’ve ever consistently seen there. Watching people who don’t normally see plays, milling in the theater with excitement, made me feel that I made some impact on the community at large, even if it was a small one.

Now that’s compromised by being in a commercial landscape. The landscape of commercial theater is one that historically has consumed Blackness without remorse. I’m still trying to figure out ways to undermine that and keep not only my performers and myself safe in that environment, but also the audience that has found themselves in my work in ways they haven’t found themselves in the theater. One of the most exciting ways I’ve decided to do that is to write and perform in a secret show that’s going to happen downtown concurrently with my show on Broadway. I have adopted a pseudonym and everything. I’ve been telling myself that it’s like I get to release an EP that’s totally mine while my LP is getting radio play. When a music artist makes an EP they are free to be more experimental, less polished than on an album or an LP. There’s a freeing potential there to what I fear won’t be a freeing experience on Broadway.

There is something exciting about the idea that these dynamics in the play will be present in a Broadway theater. Growing up, I always thought one of the great things about the theater was that it was potentially dangerous, and could contain an experience that was deeply traumatizing to not just the audience but to the performers too. Not in a way in which people feel unsafe, but right to the brink of that. I remember Tony Kushner once saying that when Angels in America was on Broadway, there were nights the audience laughed too much. When I saw that play on Broadway when I was 18, it was with exactly that kind of audience, and I remember telling myself that I never wanted that to happen in my work. So, to me, there is an opportunity for Slave Play to be genuinely disturbing to audiences. I don’t know if that’s a recipe for a long run that makes you lots of money, but it’s an opportunity to startle rather than flatter most things end up on Broadway because they flatter the audience. How are you balancing the importance of maintaining the integrity of the work and the fact that your play not only investigates trauma but aims to inflict a kind of trauma on the audience too, with the Broadway imperative to give the audience a fun, comforting time? Is there a danger that your play will get “cleaned up” to become more typical Broadway fare?

Broadway in my imagination was always transgressive and asking the audience to shift in some way. I feel like when I say things like that people look at me like I’m lying, but if the plays you’re reading as a child are Look Back in Anger, The Rose Tattoo, Topdog/Underdog, et cetera, you start to think that Broadway is just that and you hold on to that for a long time even when the evidence keeps telling you those pieces were anomalies or products of a time when Broadway theaters were not next to M&M stores but next to peep shows.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sam Delany and the New York of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and I’m hoping that inside my play there’s a bit of a transportation to that grittier time in and around Times Square. Which is one of the reasons why I think if anything we are using Broadway as an opportunity to push ourselves closer to that dangerous edge and not back away from what the play demands of the people engaging with it as both creators, actors, and an audience. As far as trauma, what I love about the company of this play and the creative team is that there’s a recognition in the room that the aim of this play is less so about inflicting trauma on anyone and more about us holding a collection of traumas that’ve been inflicted on us historically and owning them for the time we are in that room together, before we have to leave that room and those traumas can once again try to own us. Which in a way is what the play is about at its core. How can partners hold traumas collectively so they can own those traumas and all that comes with them so that one partner doesn’t have to hold them alone?

Slave Play and “Daddy” are plays that explore Black subjectivity through sexuality and intimacy. There is no shortage of sexuality in our culture, but very little deep investigation of it, especially its links to trauma and oppression. Is the sexual point of focus something you consciously pursued in your work?

I think it was innate to how I saw the world because of that sense of being hyper-stimulated culturally by sex and sexuality in the music I was listening to, the films I was watching, and yet it was rarely represented in the theater I was seeing. Moreover, the leaps and bounds Black artists in music, dance, poetry, and visual arts have been able to make in rendering their subjective, raw, and abject sexualities in public, felt like an exciting thing to explore in theater. Generally, theater has been a place where Black artists have had walls built (many times by our own communities and white liberal “allies”) around our ability to make sexual objects of ourselves or our ability to articulate new sexual subjectivities in order to combat centuries of cultural baggage around what it means to be a Black body. And moreover, to repair the damage that has been done to image of the Black body after years of white artists rendering our sexualities in ways that made us objects artists like Kenny Goldsmith, Mapplethorpe, et cetera. Given the Black theater artists I love and whose theatrical works I’ve seen hidden culturally (Adrienne Kennedy, Melvin Van Peebles, Samuel Delany), I have felt like, especially in the work I started writing at the beginning of my career, there was an undeniable import for me to explore sexuality publicly.

For a profile about you earlier this year, I was interviewed and said something which wasn’t used. I was asked about your social media presence and I said, “Jeremy wants to have conversations in public that I’ve only had in private.” I find this to be a fascinating difference between us, and maybe it speaks to a broader generational difference too. How do you see the relationship between artist and critic versus artist and public more generally?

I really like that you said that. Thank you. I think this kind of goes back to why we met in the first place. I’ve always had a fascination with the journals and diaries of artists and great thinkers. All of their letters, too, have been an obsession of mine because it lets you into a side of them, a less performed or differently performing version of themselves than they show in interviews. I feel like I’m always discussing this, which annoys me because it could be perceived as a “woe is me I was poor” narrative, but I truly didn’t have access to see or understand any of the theatrical work that felt formative to me on the page growing up. I did it all through reading about the artists. So, gestures or impulses I didn’t understand I was able to understand by reading their diaries sometimes, or like a play that felt particularly vicious in comparison to an earlier one in the collection made sense the minute I read a letter they wrote to the critic of note about the reviews they had given their previous play.

I think a lot about George Bernard Shaw in that respect. He famously critiqued critics, and I loved reading that discourse because it felt like an artist was letting the world into their humanity in a different way than simply presenting a play does. I think that when I was a child, a writer felt less human, more superhuman the further away from their piss, shit, and tears I was. Knowing that a writer could be angry, could have a crush, could be envious made their life feel more accessible to me. When my best friend and I created Faggot2Faggot, we wanted to be able to talk to writers we admired not about how genius their work was but about their first crushes, their first heartbreaks, loneliness, their fears. I think I might be doing that for the young person who is reading about this playwright with two shows up in New York and thinking I’m not a human. I use Twitter to remind people that I’m living and breathing, because I also think critics stop seeing artists as humans, that’s why they can write so callously about this work that is attempting a sort of public vulnerability.

Your thesis play, Yell: a “documentary” of my time here, is an anguished, deeply personal critique of your experience at Yale. Feeling oppressed and violated by an institution is not an experience unique to you, but you are unique in writing about it so candidly, as far as I am aware. This is in line with your sometimes revealing your feelings about responses to your work on social media in ways that typically writers have avoided. How far can you push honesty? Isn’t there a risk of your honesty seeming more performative than authentic more narcissistic provocation than authentic confession?

I think that risk is apparent in all forms of confessional writing, from memoir to autofiction, yet it’s the writing that most excites me so it’s the writing I’m drawn to most often. I think it goes back to this idea of humanity and asking people to witness a human with contradictions and convictions. For me, the flattest way to see Yell, and a way I think some people in/around the institution saw it, was as this temper tantrum about my time at Yale. But I truly was attempting to mine my experience of being a Black body who has been deemed “excellent” or “exemplary” in predominantly white institutions most of my life. Yale became a great container for all my frustrations and complicities in the white supremacist educational spaces I’ve navigated and navigated relatively well. In my mind, that type of honest reflection is perhaps more solipsistic than narcissistic; and solipsism I think is a healthy thing for an artist to mine for expression because it’s about the authentic self. I can’t write tangibly about anyone else, so that’s why I do that.

To your point about my public interrogation of criticism, I think that where that intersects with Yell is that I’m someone who thinks a lot about systems because I’ve been a part of a lot of disparate ones. When you’ve seen behind the curtain of these industries, I think it’s important to hold them to a certain standard, especially as an artist from an oppressed identity group. Seeing the way critics have both praised then dismissed me, along with a number of my peers and idols, has emboldened me to ask questions of their work in ways I wish they’d ask questions of mine, instead of dictating their thoughts on them. We are in a deeply subjective field and because the powers-that-be seem to not recognize the power they can have over many writers’ careers, a lot of them have had objectively shorter careers because of this very specific sect of people articulating subjective discourse with objective verbiage. Knowing that I’ve been privileged with a certain audience because of outreach inside and outside of the community, I feel somewhat free to call out the things that are said about me and my peers in ways that others might not.

Something your first plays have explored is how white people objectify and fetishize Black bodies, Black history, Black subjectivity in general. I’m curious how this dynamic translates to your life in your chosen industry. Are there ways in which you feel white people in show business are limited in how they see you and your potential as a writer, even — or especially — when they’re supporters of your work?

Absolutely. I think most of my work has been a response to how the world has seen me but perhaps not heard me as I’ve matured in this medium. I think the most tangible way I feel objectified is even in the way my work is discussed within my peer group. I’ve yet to see a story written about me or my peers who are Black that doesn’t mention primarily Black writers in their understanding of who we are in the theatrical landscape. And while it’s exciting to be compared to people like Kara Walker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, or Suzan-Lori Parks, I wonder how people figure into the equation that you’re an influence of mine or even that Caryl Churchill is the playwright I’ve deified the most in my mind. I also looked a lot at the “Daddy” reviews and felt somewhat disappointed in the critical engagement. I’m not saying it’s a perfect play but I felt this underlying tingle that people writing about the play came in hoping it would be some other indictment of whiteness when in fact it was a dissection of Black psychology.

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Christopher Shinn is a playwright whose adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 play Judgment Day premieres at the Park Avenue Armory in December.


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