Jeremy O. Harris Takes the Stage

Emma Summerton
Nathan Klein
T. Cole Rachel

Proving that the theatre can still be an incendiary experience, American playwright Jeremy O. Harris – whose acclaimed Slave Play recently snagged 12 Tony nominations – has earned his reputation as “the queer black saviour the theatre world needs.” Having recently made celebrated forays into writing for film and television, the 31-year-old writer, much like everyone else in the world, found his work temporarily shuttled by the global pandemic. Here, calling from London where he found unexpectedly quarantined, Harris discusses the value of taking a moment of pause and why this deeply uncomfortable cultural moment can also be a productive one.

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T. Cole Rachel: It feels a little absurd right now to ask people, “So, how are you doing? What are you working on?”, Given the state of the world. How are you handling it?
Jeremy O. Harris: I wanted to use this time to re-engage with my psyche and really take care of it. I think that people who try to pretend everything is cool – like, “I just moved my work inside, it’s totally normal. Everything’s fine” – have actually really blunted their psyches and didn’t create a safe space for their subconscious. So I think I’ve been fortifying my subconscious by not moving and saying no to things and telling people that deadlines can wait, because what does it mean to have a script ready by June? To what end? So that has become very freeing right now. Also, it’s really made me feel grateful that during the first two months of COVID I really fortified my psyche because I don’t think it would have been able to deal with all of my friends rediscovering racism again. They’re like, “Wait. That was real? That’s a thing?” It’s like, “Did you just miss everything I’ve been saying for the last two years, or did it just seem like just something I was saying to get on TV and have a play on Broadway?” We obviously still have a lot more work to do. It took Annie Cooper calling the cops on someone in Central Park for you to remember that again? Cool. Thank you. I feel seen.
TCR: A lot of artists seem to be grappling with whether or not to try and make work about what is happening right now, or dealing with this urge to now get political in their work.
JOH: I think people should react to it in whatever way they think is fine. Who am I to police anyone or say, “The proper thing to be doing, I will say as an artist who’s been doing this professionally for a year and a half, is X, Y, or Z?” It’s like, no. But I will say that for me personally, I have been listening more than I’ve been talking, or trying to. I’ve been trying to connect real actions to my ideas, which feels really nice. And that’s not to say that a play for some other person isn’t a real action or a painting isn’t a real action, but I think that for me, real action started to look like paying for Black trans women to have a house, paying for organisers to continue their work in Louisiana, helping pay for friends’ rent who were in grad schools and couldn’t afford them. That just felt really exciting and practical for me and edifying in a weird way, in the sense of, “Okay, I’m not just doing this TV show for HBO because it’s going to afford me capital, I’m doing this to create new resistance bases.” New ways to resist and support the revolution, which feels good. So again, I still would say I can’t say what anyone else should do, I just know what has made me feel good.

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TCR: You made a name for yourself as a playwright, but I know you are now working in television and film as well. How does that experience differ from the experience of making theatre?
JOH: I think it’s just different muscles. It’s like being a visual artist who focuses on video work who decides to play around in installation or make a painting. If everyone knows you as a video artist and thinks you’re an amazing video artist, you might struggle with certain parts of the construction and installation or you might have a less sure brushstroke than your friend who has been painting for two decades, but you’ll still be able to figure it out if you have that eye and the underpinning rigour that’s required. I feel really lucky that I’ve experienced that transition or those different things in that manner.
TCR: One thing theatre affords you is the experience of seeing people react to something in real-time. I thought about that seeing Slave Play. Being in a room with people, where you can palpably feel their reaction to something, is pretty rare.
JOH: I agree. And I think that’s one thing that draws me to the theatre and will always keep me in the theatre, and I think that’s also the thing that makes me write the kind of plays that I write. I’ve never wanted to write something that people can have a medium reaction to.
TCR: Your work really elicits a lot of strong reactions, which is great. I wonder if that can ever be fatiguing? When you are constantly being approached by people saying things like, “I loved your play. I want to talk to you about it. Can we please have a very intense conversation about my experience of racism?”
JOH: Yeah, it totally is. But, I could complain about it or say that it’s draining, or I could limit the number of times I go outside and make sure that if I’m going to go outside and will be around people who might know who I am, that I have that energy stored up and maybe be able to recognise myself when I’m not in the right place to be in a huge public setting and maybe trying to navigate that. There can be no gifts in a pandemic, but I think something that was personally very freeing in the last couple of months is just not having any obligations, and that was something I did take a lot of comfort in. I had forgotten that for the last four years. I had not stopped working. I did three straight years of grad school, my third year of grad school being a year where I did two plays off-Broadway, and my thesis show at school. I never took a class off. I actually took extra classes to prove to everyone that I wasn’t slacking off, that I was still normal Jeremy. I did all of that during my third year thinking that after school ended I would be able to take a year off and regroup and to process having an off-Broadway success. There was nothing on the table that made me think that my next trajectory was going to be going straight to Broadway and that experience really takes a lot out of you. There were definitely times when people would come up to me and say, “Oh my God, I’m so excited about your play.” I have so many emails that I haven’t responded to, saying things like, “I love Slave Play.” And I just haven’t responded. I recognised that a lot of that fatigue and frustration were less about the very kind and once in a lifetime thing where people are like, “You made something that was wildly affecting and I need to tell you about it!” And more so about the fact that I didn’t build in enough space for Jeremy to recharge. So COVID has taught me a lot about how I need to create more psychic boundaries for myself in order to recharge because again, it should never be fatiguing that someone is saying that you’re amazing. It should always feel really exhilarating.
TCR: I love that you are able to make work that deals simultaneously with both race and queerness. Those worlds still feel very codified and separate from each other in some ways in terms of artistic discourse.
JOH: Well, obviously there’s always been gay artists that are people of colour, right? I just think that the people with the power to publish these narratives or to promote these writers or be excited about these narratives generally all are either straight and have one idea of what queerness is and that generally erases us from it, or they’re white and gay and generally have one idea of what queerness is and want to erase my identity from it. So I think there have been a lot of people who have been having these conversations, but just a few have been able to get the press and support around it. Even a show like Daddy – and I’m not saying it was a perfect play or anything – but I do think that it’s very funny to reread the first reviews of a play that is very much my first play and to see how much they flagellate the script for being too ambitious and for daring to be so Black and so gay when it’s literally about a young Black artist who’s called a genius. It felt like there was something very affronting about – how dare the play ask to be so big or so long? And I think that’s something that stops a lot of the next Angels in America from being written by a Black or brown person, right? Because there is someone at a lower level who is like, “No. Not this. Not that.” I was really lucky that I had a theatre company that was really excited about it. And I had someone like Alan Cumming who was like, “I want to do it.” Because the minute that you have a wealthy white star say that they want to be in a play is when they begin to have life, even if it might be too big or too scary. And again, that’s something that I had access to that other people didn’t for a litany of reasons. In New York right now there are people who are doing so much exciting stuff regarding the intersection of the two identities. I think there are going to be more and more works in the public conscience in the next couple of years dealing with these ideas. One major example of that is Michael R. Jackson who just won the Pulitzer Prize. I think there was no better musical about that intersection of identities than A Strange Loop.
TCR: It was very interesting being in NYC for gay pride at the same time that the Black Lives Matter protests were happening. I experienced all of the fascinating, and occasionally uncomfortable, moments of overlap. It’s such an interesting, complicated time to be talking about these things and to be making art about them.
JOH: Yeah. This year there are a lot of muted frustrations. There are white allies who were like, “I’m done talking about this” and “I thought this was a month where we were going to talk about queer things, and that includes me and my oppression, and now I have to abandon that to talk about your oppression again.” Racism indicts many of those same people and doesn’t allow them to have that feeling or that serotonin rush of being celebrated for surviving oppression. They have to recognise that they are also oppressors, and I think that definitely created really funky energy in the air. Actually, I do like how funky that energy is. That energy is productive.

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Photography: Emma Summerton
Stylist: Nathan Klein
Photographer’s assistant: Jack Symes, Sarah Merrett
Digital Operator: Nick Dehadray
Stylist’s assistant: Elena Scanagatta
Makeup: Laura Dominique at Streeters
Hair: Shamara Roper
Production: Shiny Projects
Post Production: Spring Creative Retouch
Interview: T. Cole Rachel
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