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'Slave Play' playwright Jeremy O. Harris is on a mission to diversify theater

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley.

MOSLEY: "Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play." is a new documentary on HBO that explore the making of "Slave Play," which during its Broadway run broke records and received critical acclaim for tackling race and sex and interracial relationships. In the doc, we get a behind-the-scenes look as "Slave Play" playwright Jeremy O. Harris directs actors through workshop rehearsals and brings the play to life on Broadway. Here's a clip from the documantary, people's reaction to the play.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SLAVE PLAY. NOT A MOVIE. A PLAY.")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I liked it very much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I did not like it at all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A controversial play hits Broadway, sparking a lot of emotion, criticism and dialogue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: "Slave Play."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: "Slave Play."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: "Slave Play."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The New York Times says it is shaking things up on Broadway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: The play was horny. And I liked it 'cause I like horny stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: When I sat there, I was literally shook the entire time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: I think you're missing what the play is about. I really think that it either went over your head, or you chose not to buy into it - whichever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: The latter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: It was hard to watch some of the slavery interactions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: It seems a bit disturbing and kind of sick that we would laugh at something that was extremely traumatic for individuals, communities and for us as a society.

MOSLEY: I spoke with Harris in the spring of 2023 about the making of "Slave Play" and the kinship he feels to the late writer Lorraine Hansberry. She was the first Black woman to have a play, "A Raisin In The Sun," performed on Broadway. And she's often described as one of the most significant playwrights of the 20th century. At the time of our conversation, Harris had helped bring one of Hansberry's lesser known works, "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," to Broadway. It was written by Hansberry shortly before she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. That revival starred Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan and raised questions about art, political corruption, homosexuality and interracial love. Like Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin In The Sun," Jeremy O. Harris' debut on Broadway was a smash hit. His work "Slave Play," which ran on Broadway in 2019, garnered 12 Tony nominations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSLEY: Jeremy O. Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JEREMY O HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Jeremy, when the highly acclaimed work "Slave Play" of yours came out in 2019, it was called one of the most provocative works to show up on Broadway at the time. Is it true that it was based on a conversation that you had with a straight guy at a party?

HARRIS: It wasn't really based on it. It was more like - it was sort of like - you don't know where the lightning will strike when you're a writer. You know what I mean? And you're always waiting for lightning to strike somewhere. And wherein, like, a situation is sort of presented that gives you a great dramatic question and one that you don't have the answer to and that you haven't met before, and therein lies the play you need to write, right? That's, for me, what I look for when I'm thinking about story.

And someone basically told a story about an intimate moment with a partner, an intimate moment that involved, you know, sort of the eroticizing of both, like, a trauma and a fear of a partner. And they talked about it jovially, and they talked about it in mixed company. And I asked them if they would be as jovial or as chill talking about that if those questions also involved race - right? - if race was a part of that discourse. And immediately, they clammed up. And the reason I'd asked is because I did think it was, like, a violation to ask - to sort of share with the group something so intimate and so complex, you know, so candidly.

MOSLEY: "Slave Play" follows three interracial couples, present day, in three acts. And over the course of six days on a plantation, they undergo something called antebellum sexual performance therapy. And they are there because Black partners no longer feel sexual attraction to their white partners. What you are asking the audience to do is ask themselves something basic but very profound, a series of questions - can Black people in intimate partnerships with white people feel safe to say how they need to be seen? And would their white partners be able and willing to comply? Or does the legacy of slavery forever alter the power dynamics in these sexual relationships between Black and white people? I am really curious, Jeremy - it's been several years now. You're deep in other projects. But how have your answers to these questions maybe evolved since you originally wrote "Slave Play"?

HARRIS: It is very interesting to me that we still are meeting the play through the entry point that I laid out for everyone, right? Like, I laid out an entry point wherein the provocation was that we're asking these questions about the entanglement of Black Americans, white Americans and brown Americans through the lens of sex and sexuality. But sex and sexuality was just a metaphor for every interaction. And in this moment, we are still seeing that there is a great discomfort in this country with asking ourselves in public, in mixed company, what the responsibilities white Americans have to their entangled history with slavery, right? We've never asked ourselves how Black people have to deal with that history. We just expect that they'll figure it out themselves. But the minute that white Americans are asked to make sense of that history is the minute that there are mass book bans across the nation.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, so really what you're saying, because you do write about sex a lot, but you believe that it reveals so much more about just our private - our desires. You believe it gives us a deeper lens into who we are. So those same questions, like can Black people be in intimate partnerships with white people and feel safe to say what they need and how they need to be seen? You can just take away the word intimate and say Black people in relations with white people...

HARRIS: Yeah, I mean...

MOSLEY: ...Can they feel safe enough to express?

HARRIS: And also, I mean, you work in radio, right? Like, you have intimate relationships with your boss. You go to them and tell them, this is the thing I most want in my life. Like, listen to me. Like, affirm this, right?

And most of your - maybe your bosses are Black, but generally in a place like NPR, they would be white bosses. And they have to, like, examine your vulnerability, hold your vulnerability in the way that a lover might or a partner might and say, like, I affirm this idea, or I don't - you know, or whatever it is, you know? Like, you have to be seen, you have to be heard by your partners in a lot of different places. And I think it's - it would be easier to write off some of the questions in "Slave Play" if I'd just made a workplace comedy, right? It's harder to write those things off when you see it look like your bedroom because also, we spend so much time thinking about the bedroom.

MOSLEY: One of the things I find fascinating, though, for anyone who saw "Slave Play" in a theater, especially during the early runs of "Slave Play" - and you were often in the audience for this - is to watch people's reactions. And the laughter would come in waves. So I'm bringing up this question to come back to this idea of being seen by each other, white people seeing Black people and vice versa. But the laughter comes in waves. There were punchlines that white people in the audience thought were funny and then punchlines that Black people thought were funny, and they would rarely laugh at the same things. What did that tell you, if anything, about the differences in how Black and white people actually see things and see these issues that you're bringing up and talking about?

HARRIS: I think that's one of the hardest questions to answer for me because I saw it so many more times than everyone else did, right? I think that there are people who were maybe in an audience one night and were like, all the white people laughed at this part, and all the Black people laughed at this part. If we were to do some mathematical equation, I don't know that the percentages would line up night to night on all those things, where it would be like 100% white and 100% Black for all those things. You know, I also saw it on every Black Out night, and no one - like, one of the things...

MOSLEY: And Black Out night were with all-Black audiences.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes, we did a night...

MOSLEY: Yes.

HARRIS: ...For only Black people. And one of the things that became quite interesting to me and quite affirming for me is that, you know, one of the great critiques of the play was that - by some Black audience members who had seen the play or maybe hadn't seen the play - was that I had obviously written it for white people. And I was - I would laugh to myself because I would be like, no, I obviously wrote it for me because I'm a weird freak. Like, I'm a weird Southern Black satirist, you know, and I want to laugh in the way I want to laugh. You know, I grew up with a certain type of comedy around me. I grew up with a certain type of humor around my own trauma. And so I wanted to make a play for me.

And when I was in a room with all Black people watching the play, they all laughed at all the parts I wanted to laugh at, right? They all, like, sort of cringed at all the parts I wanted to cringe at. And what was interesting about what happens when Black people and white people are together is that the minute that people can see each other navigating this is the minute that the play actually became about daring the other to tell you what you already know about them, right? So you would see people looking in the mirror at their neighbor or looking and - like, you know, like, people, like, sort of, like, looking at Black audience members and daring them to...

MOSLEY: Assessing each other.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

HARRIS: And that became the push and pull of the play for me. And that was one of the reasons why I asked that to play be either in the round or have a mirror when we were doing our set design because when I was at Yale...

MOSLEY: Oh, what do you mean? Right, because people got to see their reflection. Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah. Because at Yale - at the Yale School of Drama, when we did the play there, by just the nature of the project, it was our second-year project, so you can't change the stage setup. We were in a three-quarter thrust, and we learned very quickly - and three-quarter thrust means that there's an audience on either side of the stage and audience in the middle. So you can see everyone. It's like a square.

And by the nature of the way the lighting worked, the limits of the budget, I saw that the play really popped off when, like, the majority Black and brown students in my year - because I came to Yale the year that more Black and brown students than had ever been at Yale came to Yale.

MOSLEY: Right. And you wrote "Slave Play" at Yale. Yes.

HARRIS: Yes. And the white New Haven audience that were sort of, like, fangirls of, like, all the theater we did there - and they were also of very different age groups than us. They were, like, 30 to 40 years older than us. They were all watching each other watch the play, and I was like, oh, this is where it comes alive. You know what I mean? Like, seeing someone get mad that someone laughed at something they didn't get is where the play comes alive.

MOSLEY: Black Out nights - they were private events that you had all over where Black audiences could witness and see your work. And they were invitation only. Why was holding space for Black audience members important to you?

HARRIS: Well, I have a very good friend who's a musician named Kelela. And she saw the play on off Broadway twice or three times. And she came to me after...

MOSLEY: "Slave Play." Yes.

HARRIS: "Slave Play," yeah, off Broadway. And she came to me, and she said to me, Jeremy, I love the play. But that was mainly because I saw it with my group of friends. But whenever I looked up at the mirror and saw all the white people in the audience, I just thought, wouldn't it be so much cooler if I could just see Black people, just for one night, so I wouldn't be pulled out of it by these other audience members?

And I was like, well, you know what? I've never been to a play that only had Black people in it, or a play in a house this big that's only had Black people in it. So I was like, if we go to Broadway, I'm going to do that. I'm going to just have a Black Out night. I'm going to have a night where we just have Black people in the audience.

Because I thought about the fact that, you know, in the 1960s, 1950s, for most of my grandmother's life, she wasn't allowed to go to theaters with white people. And no one's ever apologized to her for that. They just sort of one day were like, oh, I guess you can go. And I was like, without a radical invitation to bring us back to the theater, there's not going to ever be a change. And also, I'm tired of going to plays - every play I go to, I'm the only Black person in the audience most of the time or at least the only Black person in the orchestra. So I was like, maybe that'll start to change if I give someone a way to change it, right? If I remind Black people that these halls, this architecture, can belong to us, as well. And so we did it. And it was amazing. It was really, really amazing.

MOSLEY: Twelve Tony nominations is historic. I mean, it's something to be forever proud of. But were you disappointed at all that you all didn't win?

HARRIS: I'm gay. So award shows are my Olympics. Like, I am...

MOSLEY: Yeah?

HARRIS: ...The prognosticator. I have a really, really high rate of - a really high success rate in, like, Oscars, Tony tallying. Like, it's, like, so messed up because it's so much fun for me. And so I truly came into the Tonys thinking that, like, we would definitely not win best play. I thought that there was a chance we would win best actress and best set. And the minute we didn't win best set, I turned to my mom, and I was like, we're not winning anything. And it's actually kind of cool to be able to say that, like, no matter what, I doubt anyone will ever lose 12 Tonys for best play.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Like, I don't think one play will ever lose 12 Tony nominations, so it feels kind of punk in the same way that, like, Beyonce losing to Harry Styles is punk, you know?

MOSLEY: Yeah. Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeremy O. Harris. He has a new documentary on HBO about the making of his Broadway hit "Slave Play." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking to actor, producer, playwright and philanthropist Jeremy O. Harris. He has a new HBO documentary called "Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play." Harris has written several plays, including "Daddy" and "Slave Play, which was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. When we spoke last spring, he was producing the latest revival of Lorraine Hansberry's play "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSLEY: Jeremy, I read that it was actually a text exchange between you and actress Rachel Brosnahan that motivated you...

HARRIS: [empty]

MOSLEY: ...To step in to get this play onto Broadway after it ended its run in Brooklyn, where it'd actually done pretty well. Why was it important for you to get it shown on Broadway?

HARRIS: Well, I mean, one, selfishly, I wanted to see it. I had seen a production of it in Chicago when Anne Kauffman, the phenomenal director, did it there. And I just imagined that because such, you know, huge, huge stars were in this play, that for me is so huge, it would have immediately gone to Broadway right afterwards. So because I was doing a writers' residency in Italy with a group of young playwrights - because of that, I wasn't able to see the show before it closed. And when I found out it wasn't going to Broadway, I immediately, like, sort of jumped into action because I felt like the world needed to see this play. And also, I needed to see it because I wanted to see it with Rachel and Oscar.

MOSLEY: You know, this moment that we're in - yes, this Lorraine Hansberry play is on Broadway, and at the same time, her work is being banned in places like Oklahoma. And the banning of - other creative works by Black artists are being banned. How do you see this moment as it relates to those urgent themes that you think about that this "Brustein" play actually brings forth?

HARRIS: So I'm from Virginia. I'm from Martinsville, Va., a really small town in Virginia that you've probably never heard of unless you follow, you know, mid-century modern furniture that stopped being made in America in 1992. You know, I was in a factory town that dried up. And one of my only saving graces in that town was I had a great teacher named Candace Owen-Williams, who had a huge, huge collection of great, great plays and great, great novels. She taught me English, and she taught me drama, and she taught me dance. And she gave me a pathway out of of dire circumstances. She gave me a language for the politics that I would grow to have.

And in this moment, when I'm seeing our country in this dire need of, you know, reading comprehension and politics that do not waver, I am seeing the right do the thing they need to do to make sure that we all become opioid addicts who never leave our small towns. They are taking away our books. They're taking away our ability to dream. And so when I see that I have a chance to, you know, work with amazing people to potentially get 1,500 people more a week to go home and tell everyone they know about a little play called "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window" that might maybe spark for one of those people that those 1,500 meet the gumption to go and buy it at their local bookstore or get it from their library and read it and spread the politic this woman so, like, you know, vibrantly held on to as she was dying in 1964, I know that we're doing our job. We're doing it right, you know, because, like, that can shift something in some small town, some small place. Like, that's why I do theater - is to shift the politics of the communities that come in contact with the plays that I'm putting on.

MOSLEY: When did you first discover Lorraine Hansberry?

HARRIS: I discovered Lorraine Hansberry when I was in high school, I think when a lot of other people did. I wanted to be a lawyer before I wanted to be a playwright or even an actor. The trajectory of what Jeremy's jobs were going to be were preacher, lawyer, preacher, lawyer, actor.

MOSLEY: And you read "A Raisin In The Sun," I'm guessing.

HARRIS: I read "A Raisin In The Sun." I read "Young, Gifted And Black." But these are all things I met when I was in the ninth grade in AP English.

MOSLEY: You went to a primarily white high school, though.

HARRIS: I did, but I had great, great teachers. There was a - Dr. Stevens (ph) was our white teacher who went to Howard, which was insane. And he taught history of the Americas. And his entire history of the Americas was essentially the 1619 Project. Like, and it was not met well by a lot of the students at the school, one of whom had still - like, one of the kids in my school still lived in, like, a house that was, like, on a plantation.

MOSLEY: Hansberry suffered from pancreatic cancer, and she was just 34 years old when she died. Do you ever think about how she might have perfected "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window" had her life not been cut short?

HARRIS: You know what's so funny? I had a conversation earlier today. I did a sort of documentary thing for - not my documentary, someone else's documentary about Christopher Marlowe. And they asked me, do you think that if Christopher Marlowe hadn't died at 29, he would have written any - like, do you ever imagine how many better works he would have written? And I said, I actually think it's really - I think it's really disrespectful, in a way, to the memory of these artists to fetishize or imagine that the work they've done already is not enough, right?

That, like - that there's something more that they could have or should have done with their time on Earth because, like, the fact that we're still thinking about this play and her other works - right? - so much longer past her - like, so long after her death when so many of her contemporaries, so many of her peers, have not lived anywhere near as long as she has through "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window" or "Les Blancs" or "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" or "Raisin In The Sun" that I don't know that I need to imagine that - what would have happened if she had written this any better or any differently if she had been alive because I don't know that she would have. I know that she left us this. And this has given us so much to parse through, so much to think about.

We're still talking about it, you know? There's something quite beautiful about that to me, something so complete about that. And I love that, like, she left us something in her dying days that is something - that's a great puzzle that we want to keep putting together and piecing apart and, like, rejiggering over and over and over again.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is actor, producer and playwright Jeremy O. Harris. He's written several plays, including "Daddy" and "Slave Play," which was nominated in 2021 for 12 Tony Awards. We'll hear more of our conversation after a short break. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the new film "Kinds Of Kindness." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A GRAND NIGHT FOR SWINGING")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Let's get back to my interview with Jeremy O. Harris. He's a playwright, actor and producer best known for his breakout Broadway production "Slave Play." There's now a new HBO documentary about the making of that production, which in 2021 garnered 12 Tony nominations. In the doc, which dropped this week, Harris confronts the debate the play received, reflecting on both its success and the outrage it provoked. I spoke with Harris in the spring of 2023 about the revival to Broadway of one of the late writer Lorraine Hansberry's lesser-known works, "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window." Hansberry wrote it shortly before she died at the age of 34.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSLEY: OK, let's talk about "Daddy." It was one of your first melodramas that you actually wrote before "Slave Play." And it's about a young Black artist who gets into a twisted relationship with a wealthy older collector. And this idea came to you when you were in your early 20s after a real encounter with a wealthy white man - is this right? - who invited you on a trip to Saint-Tropez. But you declined the offer and later had an epiphany about why. Can you share the PG version of this story?

HARRIS: So the man that invited me actually wasn't white. He was actually a person of color. And he was - but he was a billionaire. I knew a lot of boys who were being wooed or were dating multimillionaires or billionaires when I first moved to LA. And I remember I'd go to their parties. And I'd be, like, so, like, wowed that these boys were in these houses that were, like, multimillion-dollar houses with, like, people who literally, like, ran our country, you know, both culturally and socially and politically. And I was like, what do you have to do to be one of these boys? And, like, the main criteria seemed to be, be, like, white and have abs, you know? And...

MOSLEY: Yeah, be, like, supermodel-like. And you were intellectual.

HARRIS: I was the intellectual. And so I would go to these parties and be the only one, like, not in a speedo, just, like, talking to their daddies - right? - like, these, like, older men. And, like, finding out, like - I'd be like, so, like - you know, like, so when you won your first Oscar, like, how did that happen, you know? Like, I was, like, asking all the, like, weird questions or, like, going to their art collection and being like, wait. Is that, like - is that a Louise Bourgeois? Like, I was, like, so not the vibe. Like, I was not - but they liked me. They tolerated me. They saw me as like a cute assistant, you know, but not like a love interest, until one guy saw me and really wanted to see me in a lot of different ways and, after trying to woo me all night, invited me on this trip.

And without even hesitating, after months and months and months of wondering what I would say if I ever had this opportunity and hoping that, like, I would get swept off my feet by someone like this, the minute I was met with the opportunity by a very attractive, very charming man, I was immediately like, no (laughter). No, thank you (laughter). And he was like, what? And I was like, yeah, no, thank you. I don't want to do that because my brain immediately went to, like, A - what would my mom say? Not because I'm queer, but because, like, he was older than her? You know what I mean? I was like, this is weird.

And, B, because I think in the back of my mind, I was like, I don't want a daddy. I am my own daddy, you know? And I think that's because for so long of my childhood, when growing up as a - in a single-parent home, I'd had to be the man of the house for so long. And I think that, like, it was, like, fun to dream about or imagine that some man would sweep me and my mom off our feet and, like, save the day. But I think I had done the job of doing that in my own way for so long that I was like, no, it's too late. I have to be the one that does it.

MOSLEY: I mean, this is really powerful because this thought that came to you like, wait a minute - I don't want a savior. I want to be my own savior. I want to be my own daddy - it helped you confront something about your own relationship with the role of father. You never actually knew your biological father.

HARRIS: Nope. I only met him once when I was 8. And he did the worst thing you can do to a child when they're 8, which is tell them you'll come back and see them again and then never do it.

MOSLEY: Do you remember the meeting?

HARRIS: I do.

MOSLEY: Where were you? Yeah.

HARRIS: It was in Virginia. My mom had gotten this really nice, big house on Stoney Mountain. It was very nice for us. And he came to visit us. My mom had sort of worked it out because I'd been asking about him a lot. And so then he came to visit. He came with his wife. And they were on leave from the military. And he gave me a present. And we, like, hung out. And we took pictures. And then he told me that he would come back for me and - like, the next day and take me on a trip with him to where he was stationed at the time. And he literally just never showed back up. He's never called. He's never texted. He's never written.

MOSLEY: Your mom had you when she was pretty young. She was 19. Yeah. And she was a single mom, as you mentioned. Was she primarily a beautician growing up?

HARRIS: No, she worked all sorts of jobs. She worked at, like - there were a lot of factories in my town, so she worked at a couple of factories. Then she worked at, like, a tire factory. She worked at, like, a factory that, like, did, like, textiles. She worked at a furniture factory. And then she worked as a hairstylist. And that was her primary job from middle school on. But, you know, in order to become a hairstylist, you have to go to school for that. And that costs money and time. And, you know, when you're a single mom, you don't have the time or the luxury to do that, you know?

MOSLEY: Did she work in a salon when she was a beautician?

HARRIS: She did. And then she owned her own salon, too.

MOSLEY: Did you ever visit? Did you spend time there?

HARRIS: I worked at the salon. And I will always say this...

MOSLEY: Oh, what did you do?

HARRIS: Oh, my God. So I swept up hair. I took orders and calls and worked the front desk. I basically was annoying. But the thing that I'm really upset was that she wanted to teach me how to do hair. And I was so afraid of being perceived as gay for doing hair that I didn't learn. And I still to this day am frustrated because I don't think I would have been as, like, financially dire through my 20s had I just known how to, like, braid hair.

MOSLEY: Did she want to teach you when you were a teenager? And were you out then? Were you not out then?

HARRIS: I didn't come out until my first year of college, until after the end of my first year of college. And I think it had more to do with just the fact that, like, there wasn't enough representation of what queerness actually was. Like, all we had was, like, "Will & Grace." And in "Will & Grace," like, if they kissed a girl, they'd be like, ew, gross, yuck. And I was like, I like kissing girls sometimes, you know? So I was like, maybe I'm not gay. And it wasn't until I went to college where I was like, no, no, no.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: You are. You definitely are. But again, that's because we had such a, like, binary understanding of what queerness was. And also, any sort of exploration - because I think I would have explored many, many times. But all that sense of exploration was, like, completely stamped out. There was no, like, pathway to exploration because to explore was to confirm, right? And to confirm was death. And I think that's what's really dark about this moment was that right when people like my niece - who's 12, right? My niece was, like, 12 and told us all that, like, they wanted to have she/they pronouns and, like, you know, didn't want to identify as straight. Like, that sort of exploration or expression at that age would have been so detrimental to my, like, my bodily health, my social health, and...

MOSLEY: It wasn't an option. Yeah.

HARRIS: It wasn't an option. And now, right when it's slowly becoming an option in a place like Danville, Va., people are getting freaked out and feel threatened by it and are trying to put our kids back in the closet and make everyone afraid again of exploring, of expressing.

MOSLEY: Is it true that you'd also help your mother dress? Would you pick out her outfits or help her choose what to wear?

HARRIS: Oh, always. I still do that. I still do that to this day.

MOSLEY: Yeah. You'd also sometimes put on her clothing and play around in front of the mirror. I'm just curious, what did her clothing represent for you?

HARRIS: I think the same thing that all clothing represented - just, like, a chance to tell a new story about myself. You know what I mean? And I loved making characters. Like, it was, like, truly a character thing for me and a plaything for me, which is one of the reasons why I feel so protective of, like, everyone's right. And everyone should feel the right and the thrill of dressing.

Because dressing - like, the minute - today I'm wearing - it's hot in New York, and I'm wearing a full suit and a turtleneck because that's the story I wanted to tell about myself today, that I'm the type of person who walks around in New York and doesn't feel the heat.

MOSLEY: (Laughter) Yes. OK. What color is it?

HARRIS: It is a striped Versace suit. It's like a wine and a navy blue with a white stripe. And then the turtleneck is, like, a sort of see-through sheer black Margiela.

MOSLEY: Two weeks before "Slave Play" made its debut on Broadway, your grandfather, Golden Harris, passed away. I mean, what a name. Was Golden his birth name?

HARRIS: Golden was his birth name.

MOSLEY: What role did he play in your life? How did he shape your understanding of yourself?

HARRIS: Well, we called him - I called him Papa (ph). He was very, very special. And he - you know, he was the one patriarch in our family, in a family of very, very strong matriarchs. He was a complicated man. He was a man of a lot of humor, a man of a lot of light but a man that gave up everything in a lot of ways to make sure that, like, both his children and myself - all of his children and myself had, like, as many opportunities as we could.

He gave me so many great memories. Like, I'll never forget, like, you know, him having no money but always finding, like, $2 and change to, like, take me to the rock store to get a hot dog and chips - a hot dog with mustard, ketchup, chili and chips right after school every day when, like, they definitely didn't have the money for that. Yeah, he was just a very special light in my life. And I'm very sad he didn't get to see me go to Broadway, but I know he was part of the reason I was there because I opened my play at the Golden Theater on Broadway, which is a wild, wild - it's too wild a coincidence to not be something.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeremy O. Harris. He has a new documentary on HBO about the making of his Broadway hit "Slave Play." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAINT SINNA SONG, "REAL FLOW")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking to actor, producer, playwright and philanthropist Jeremy O. Harris. He has a new HBO documentary called "Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play." When we spoke last spring, he was producing the latest revival of Lorraine Hansberry's play "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window" Harris has written several plays, including "Daddy" and "Slave Play," which was nominated for 12 Tony Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSLEY: Going back to your freedom of expression through clothing - and I love you're wearing a suit with a turtleneck to really convey that message that you can take the heat. I mean, the clothes you wear, your afros and braids and beads and colorful clothing, your photos with stars like Madonna and Rihanna - you very much evoke the persona of a movie or pop star, which isn't what we think of when we think of a playwright. And for you, that's intentional, to attract audiences. Can you say more about this? It's intentional to attract the audiences that you want to come to the theater. Can you explain that?

HARRIS: I want to catch people in a web, right? So if the web of influence I have in the theater are just kids that go to NYU performance studies or NYU - the Tisch School of Theater (ph) - right? - that's a very small web. It's not a very large web. And if it's just people who do theater, it's not a very large web. It doesn't catch my mom. It doesn't catch my sister. It doesn't catch my cousins.

But if I'm with Rihanna, Rihanna's web adds to my web, and it gets a little bigger. So then I catch a couple people from her web, right? And if I am with Madonna or if I'm with, you know, a painter like Salman Toor or if I'm with a, you know, a K-pop star like Eric Nam or an actress like Cate Blanchett, like, the web gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And for a small, small little community like theater, the bigger your web is, the better it is, you know?

And that being said, I always struggle with this idea that it's, like, new for a writer to be popular. Like, you know, bon vivants are necessary part of our culture. Public intellectuals are, like, a necessary part of our culture. You know, like, James Baldwin used to walk around with Marlon Brando in the Harlem nightclubs, you know? Sam Shepard was dating Jessica Lange. It's not new, in my opinion, for a playwright to be, like, seen with artists of note or Hollywood stars, especially if he's - or she - is, like, you know, curious about the world, funny, intelligent and makes art that those people might also want to be a part of. It feels like a necessary extension of what they do.

MOSLEY: Folks may not know you actually started out in this business wanting to be an actor. You were an actor in Chicago for a brief moment. But when I first saw your cameo on HBO Max's "Gossip Girl" and then the Netflix show "Emily In Paris," I thought you might be branching out. That is not the case. You actually came into playwriting after becoming an actor and really figuring out that it wasn't for you.

HARRIS: Well, yeah, the job of acting isn't for me. I hate the job of being an actor. And that doesn't mean the job of acting on a set. I mean the job of, like, waking up, rehearsing multiple sides, sending in those self tapes, getting rejected, being told by your agent that, like, the reason they said no was because you're too tall or you're not skinny enough or you're too skinny, being asked to wait and wait and wait and do all of that for free - that felt crazy to me.

And like I told my friend Ayo Edebiri, who's on "The Bear," I feel like I cheated and took the back door to becoming a famous actor, potentially. You know, I'm in this movie called "The Sweet East" that premiered at Cannes, and I was just like, is that what every failed actor should do - is just write a hit play? And I think the answer is yes, absolutely.

MOSLEY: Right.

HARRIS: Write a hit play. Then you will be on a Netflix series. You will be on an HBO series. You will be asked to be in multiple movies you'll have to say no to because you'll be so busy writing that you can't say yes to all your movie roles.

MOSLEY: Why do you love working in theater so much, and why has it become your main form of expression?

HARRIS: I think it's linked to the idea that I wanted to be a preacher at one point, you know? Like, it's a community-based practice. And that's what - you know, it's a community-based practice minus the religion, you know? You get to see the faces of the people you're impacting with your work. You get to talk with them. You get to see how their - how the conversation in your work move through them every night. And I think that that's vital to a vital democracy - is to have watering holes where people actually are being forced to think, debate and talk together in a room, not online, where you can actually see their affect, where you can make sense of their word, where you can meaning-make together, not in a silo. That's why I make theater.

MOSLEY: But you also feel it's just as important to step into these other realms of art and making. Why is that? You could focus solely on one thing, but you've decided to take these other avenues of expression, as well.

HARRIS: I'm a Gemini. I don't know.

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I like - one - like, I mean, it's mainly theater. And also I'm like - it's like I'm poly with art. It's like, yes, my main - my anchor is theater. But that might mean that because I love theater so much, I'll walk down a hallway into a bedroom with music and write seven songs, one of which might end up in a play, two of which might end up on a friend's album, you know? But each of the things I do comes back and inspires the theater even more. And I think that if I was completely monogamous with theater, I'd get bored with it. So me and theater have an arrangement.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: Jeremy O. Harris, thank you so much for this conversation.

HARRIS: Thank you.

MOSLEY: Jeremy O. Harris is an actor, producer, playwright and philanthropist. Last year, he helped get the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's play "The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window" to Broadway. And he now has a new documentary out on HBO called "Slave Play. Not A Movie. A Play." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Kinds Of Kindness," by the same director who brought us the film "Poor Things." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUBIE BLAKE'S "TRICKY FINGERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is a correspondent and former host of Here & Now, and the creator and host of the podcast Truth Be Told. She has been a regular contributing interviewer for Fresh Air since 2021.
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