It’s not a white guilt play.
It’s a play about black people, and more specifically, the psychological distortion that some (not all) black people encounter in interracial relationships with white people as a result of centuries of disparity of power and sexual exploitation.
Slave Play opens with three couples having sex. Each of these sexual encounters is an exaggerated role play, each with their own version of a slavery kink at work. The power dynamics are absolute. One couple is a white man and a black woman, one is a white woman and a black man, and one is a white man and a black man.
The white characters in the show are not bad people. It is suggested and demonstrated that they check all of the boxes assigned to loving partners. They wrestle with the same pitfall that many white people do, the inability to truly put themselves into the shoes of a person who has faced more hardship because of their skin color. Despite the lack of foul play by the white characters, as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that the sexual dysfunction that each couple is experiencing is rooted in racial conflict.
The shift that occurs about forty minutes into the play transposes the audience experience. The dialogue that unravels in the subsequent forty minutes transforms the play from a humorous/off-beat romp, to a deeply thought provoking piece of writing.
It’s not flawless. At times I was (metaphorically) scratching my head wondering what the purpose was, but moments later would be hit by an indisputable truth bomb, finding myself resisting the urge to nod in agreement (don’t be pretentious, Kyle). As a white guy, I am naturally not going to have an intrinsic understanding of every theme in a show about race. I cannot pretend, however, that several of the thoughts verbalized haven’t crossed my mind in one way or another for years. The play made me feel complicit in centuries of oppression that I myself had nothing to do with, but it also made me want to be a better ally. It reinforced the knowledge that my voice is not the most important or most profound, and that listening is often more important than speaking.
Did I like Slave Play? I’m still processing. Pun intended. But I am so glad I saw it. The main issue I had with the play is that I got no sense of resolve at the end. Perhaps that’s meant to be. Because conversations about race are messy, imperfect, and ever-evolving. And in this case, art imitates life.