Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play. is in fact a documentary self-portrait, at times providing a behind-the-scenes look at the workshopping of Harris’ provocative, Tony-nominated show. Harris––with a filmography that includes co-writing Zola, co-starring in The Sweet East, and producing Pet Shop Days––likely could have adapted Slave Play with the support of his film collaborators and may still very well do that one day. But this is not that film, or even that play.

What emerges feels, with intent, like a DVD extra for much of the first act before flipping the script as Harris mirrors Slave Play’s third act and pulls back the curtain on the making of the documentary as he sits and edits with co-editor Pete Ohs. Ohs, of course, has some experience in this department, creating the maddeningly theatrical micro-budget feature Jethica with a tiny crew and a small cast. The film begins with a quick introduction to the cultural phenomenon of Slave Play, including a white woman shouting from the audience at Harris after a performance, expressing dismay and discomfort with the show. The interaction is captured on the fly, complete with commentary from the person who posted the encounter on social media.

Harris admits the play is a bit of a cultural live wire act inspired by the DEI industrial complex––the experts, speakers, and facilitators that come into a workplace hired by HR departments to try to build empathy. Ultimately, he feels, the process leaves more questions and tensions than valuable tools for addressing diversity and adversity in the workplace. Initially premiering in November 2018, Slave Play is a play within therapy for three interracial couples, described broadly by its fans (and detractors) as a horny satire of contemporary race relations.

The workshop within the film (about a workshop essentially) is pure dramaturgy addressing the notes on style and various possibilities offered to those producing the play, either in larger-budget settings or sparse, black-box theaters. Multiple performers embody the play’s characters; some express their discomfort with the language, in one instance of rehearsal an actress representing Alana takes issue with using the N-word before being reassured this space grants permission to go there. Other players consider the work to be a type of porn. The film is more than just about doing the work: by pulling back the curtain on the process of making the film-within-the-film, offering a level of reflexivity embraced by Harris, where each decision appears to be collaborative and labored.

This continues to play out in the edit as the third act folds on itself, revealing the choice of directing a documentary film with his collaborators. Here he’s given a new set of problems to labor over; in one instance he insists on having Ohs set up his editing station on stage, in front of an empty Broadway theater. Co-editor Teki Cruickshank largely remains off-screen and behind the scenes as Harris and Ohs vibe and find rhythm.

Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play. may not be precisely what one expects, but––if anything––it offers a unique insight into Jeremy O. Harris’ creative process. A brilliant boundary-breaker who just turned 35, he has had an exciting career built around collaboration rather than compromise, and this film will be interesting to revisit as he continues producing exciting, innovative work.

Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play. premiered at the Tribeca Festival and is now streaming on Max.

Grade: B

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