© Micaiah Carter

Jeremy O. Harris: ‘I tried to make theatre cool’

The American playwright on how his writing seeks to provoke
December 9, 2021

American playwright Jeremy O. Harris spent most of lockdown in a mews in Finsbury Park, north London. His play "Daddy" had been due to open in March 2020 at the Almeida theatre in nearby Islington. “I think if I had been in New York, I would have just been drinking in this small apartment and maybe doing ketamine all the time,” he tells me. “That’s what a lot of people I know in New York ended up doing. In my mews there was no ketamine. I did get addicted to natural wine.”

Covid meant that the Almeida postponed "Daddy"—an explicit portrait of a relationship between a young black artist and an older white art collector—until April 2022. It’s not hard to see why Harris, a black artist who has worked in a mainly white world, was drawn to the subject. “I feel a lot of social pressure from a lot of different groups,” he says. “The way I navigate that is by radically listening, but also never denying who I am. And my core is always going to be Jeremy Harris, a black gay boy who grew up poor in the [American] south, who was educated purely in private schools and primarily white institutions for his entire life.” 

“If I had been in New York, I would have just been in this small apartment doing ketamine all the time”

Harris is currently in his Manhattan apartment, about to get ready for the first performance of the new Broadway run of Slave Play. After its opening in New York in 2019, the play was nominated for a record-breaking 12 Tony awards. “This run is about the family that made the play coming back together,” he says, “to celebrate this play that started out in a basement at Yale School of Drama.”

Slave Play—which is funny and wildly daring—depicts three interracial couples engaging in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” This involves white people role-playing as slave-owners raping their slaves. When I see it on Broadway the day after we speak, the audience’s unease is obvious. “I don’t know that I can decide how anyone should feel about the play,” Harris says. “Some of the most outwardly uncomfortable people in my audience can be black people. I think there’s a quiet or rageful discomfort that white audiences can experience sometimes that I’ve been privy to. My work is uncomfortable work.” 

For a writer, Harris has an extremely public image: he released a clothing line during the pandemic, attended the 2021 Met Gala and is friends with Rihanna. He is prolific and often caustic on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. (The tweet he has pinned at the top of his Twitter feed reads: “Y’all are so fucking stupid.”) Does such provocation constitute part of his craft?

“I tried to make theatre cool. But I think theatre will always be one of the least cool art forms”

“My social media persona is very much my ego, and I have to keep it in check,” he admits. “My writing is me putting down the deepest, darkest parts of my subconscious, and not policing that. Exploring what it feels like to embrace ego, to embrace glamour, to embrace beauty is what I allow my social media to do for me, because then that sort of vanity does not exist on the page.”

“I tried to make theatre cool,” he adds. “That was my whole thing. But I think theatre will always be one of the least cool art forms. Most theatre people are nerds. I think there’s something really endearing about that.”

It frustrates him when people express outrage at the graphic nature of the sex scenes in his plays. “It’s like, you have Googled porn this week. You’re doing your own piece of theatre right now. I just put my theatre up, so I’m not going to engage with yours.

“But people’s expectations are so often just projections,” he adds. “And there’s very little one can do with projection, you know?”