With two searing world premieres in one season, Jeremy O. Harris isn’t making a splash; he’s summoning a tidal wave. Slave Play, his provocative dissection of how slavery permeates and poisons contemporary interracial couples’ sex lives, just completed its extended run at New York Theater Workshop. In the spare weeks between that production and his next, Harris has flown to Miami to work on the screenplay for his film Zola (based on a stripper’s Odyssean travails documented via a Twitter thread) and returned to Yale to complete his MFA in Playwriting (he graduates in May). Now, Harris turns (splits?) his attention to “Daddy,” the second of his two explosive Off-Broadway premieres this season.
Like Slave Play, “Daddy” spotlights the incendiary intersections of race and sex. The new play, directed by Danya Taymor, features Alan Cumming in the eerie, titular role and begins previews February 12 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. A co-production between The New Group and Vineyard Theater, “Daddy” is a blistering commentary on white people’s cultivation of black culture told through the lens of a May – December relationship between a gifted, emergent artist, Franklin (Ronald Peet), and his wealthy but tasteless art collector “boyfriend” Andre (Cumming). The beauty in Harris’s plays lies not just in their ability to expose rich sociological terrain, but also, as Harris says, himself.
Billy McEntee (Rail): You’ve talked about how “Daddy” is dedicated to your mother. What was it like to write a show where the mother is, in a way, the anchor of the play but not one of its protagonists?
Jeremy O. Harris: Well I think that the definition of a protagonist can be very loose and that’s what excites me about drama: the malleability of the form. We’ve been so inundated with storytelling our whole lives that an audience or even a person sitting right in front of you is willing and primed to walk down any path you lead them. So the story you might assume you’re seeing when you see a poster for a play called “Daddy” starring Alan Cumming can take a black matrilineal turn and you will be right there with it; it can feel natural because in a way your brain had already written that other story for you without me doing a thing. And now this other story can feel even more surprising than the one you were anticipating. I feel so self-conscious now because I feel like I’m basically just serving up “Story Structure 101.” I guess it’s time I start teaching. [Laughter.]
Rail: Did the young-black-artist/older-white-collector dynamic at the core of “Daddy”originate from a specific relationship, the ways in which white institutions “cultivate” people of color, or both? Neither?
Harris: I think it actually was birthed from years of being anti-institutional and not trusting institutions because I was burned so completely at eighteen years old by believing that institutions would affirm me, and within that reject I felt I saw all the things that made me unique being rejected: my blackness, my queerness, my height, my affect. All of those things were markers of me not being a right fit for the institution. Yet, because I was groomed to be a darling of any institution from a young age in private schools, institutions and people who were also groomed in them began to seek me out, consistently in my twenties because all those unique parts of me became like all the best things the further we got from 9/11 or something. Otherness became chic, like the ’80s.
I think when the ideas about my own subjectivity started becoming a play they were becoming one because of those things. And then one night at a party in the hills—at the house of a friend who was dating a very famous gay sugar daddy—a man of immense privilege attempted to seduce me, and I immediately said no. And for months I had friends saying to me I was crazy because a few of them were going on a big trip with him and someone else they knew had had their rent paid for a long time by dating him, and I said something to the effect of, “If I’ve gotten this far without a real daddy why would I need a sugar daddy?” And when they all left I had this title “Daddy”—in quotes, a spoken daddy—and the whole plot in the back of my head just waiting to be written. The plot that was birthed from that situation and the title fused with all these ideas I had already started to cultivate about institutions, and the play I have now was the result.
Rail: Without giving too much away, Franklin and Andre’s romantic life progresses, and Franklin’s friend Max toasts their relationship, ending with “More fun.” I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Angels in America benediction, “More life.” The toast Max gives feels, apropos of Franklin and Andre’s relationship, more superficial. Can you discuss what you were getting at there?
Harris: I love the idea that this brought Angels to your mind. I don’t know that there is any play I read in my youth as many times at that one. It was the play that drew two of my best friends to me. It’s the play that I think, unconsciously, I’m always reaching toward in terms of its emotional and intellectual scope, its sense of spectacle, and its understanding of human nature. It’s just such a special play. I think, for me, what excites me about human speech, especially the speech of digital natives, is that it’s Chekhovian by design. All subtext. I think for Max, “more fun” is a speech unto itself—it’s someone telling a whole story of what is and what could have been with one utterance. It’s the type of subtext I’ve seen in many a late-night send-off in LA and New York, and it’s something that I look forward to seeing an undergraduate student mine in an acting class one day.
Rail: This play has a pool! Did you spend time, during your spell in LA, poolside? How did your time on the West Coast influence this piece?
Harris: I hate beaches generally but I love to swim and so pools, especially a salt-water pool, are the dream. When I first moved to LA many of my friends had nightlife jobs and I worked in retail. Moreover part of the lifestyle of LA is a sort of everyday insouciance: there are pools all over and you’re in one every day at every hour of the day if you so choose, and for my early twenties I very much chose that. A pool is such a beautifully intimate and social space, and I think that social landscape of fluidity is very much in the structure of the play and in the play’s thematic arcs.
I think the West Coast fundamentally changed how I think about this art form completely. I think it’s why I’m so excited by Aleshea Harris’s work because she’s also a playwright who spent much of her time in California in her twenties, and I think you can feel that. For me, I think one of the influences being on the West Coast gave this play is a freedom from feeling confined by space. Nothing about this play makes you feel like I wrote this without a backyard. It feels like you can see the sky on the page to me and I think that’s the influence of the West Coast, expansiveness of my own imagination.
Rail: You’ve had a knockout season. Are you feeling fired up and ready to write more, or do you want to chill for a bit? There can be a propulsive but poisonous American attitude toward work: that we must do more. How are you feeling?
Harris: I feel conflicted.
I feel very blessed by the potentials that are in front of me now that this season has gone so well so far. In many ways I want to be able to pull a Frank Ocean and go hide somewhere for a long time, yet the reality of our field is that that’s not really possible. You can have a sold-out run of a play and still be wondering how you’re going to pay your rent in six months, so you can’t exactly hide away in Tokyo for a year especially if you have debt or obligations that require you to have a modicum of respectable savings.
I also want to protect my work as it stands now and the work as it, hopefully, stands in the future, so I think that does mean taking time. My fear would be doing what I’ve seen playwrights in other eras do where they have a hit play; you see them try to recreate it over and over again. That works for a time, you’ll get produced, but as a reader those playwrights don’t excite me. So if taking time off will mean I’ll be able to write work that keeps me in step with the playwrights whose careers excite me, then I’ll do what I need to do.
Rail: That said, what themes are you hoping to continue exploring no matter where your craft takes you?
Harris: I think that so far I’ve made work about the intersection of violence and desire through a few different lenses, and I think that will be a part of my work for a long time. I see much of the world through a psycho-sexual lens so that’s exciting, but, and I don’t know if this is a theme, but the thing I want to keep exploring no matter what is myself. I had a professor tell me that I make digging into my guts look easy, which I found both kind and sad because it’s not easy, but I think she was getting at the fact that it is a very natural part of my craft. I don’t know how to write if I’m not cutting into myself deeply and digging in places I maybe shouldn’t, but I feel excited to keep doing that.
Rail: You’re also working on a movie, Zola; how are things going with that?
Harris: Zola is amazing. I saw the first cut and I’m really thrilled about how it looks right now. It’s so funny to see something like a movie happen because the process is so alien and unnatural in a way that theater is not. The process of making a movie requires so much more trust and I think initial vision than theater requires. So many decisions about the film that were made on the page end up having to change because of something as simple as bad light placement on a set that day. Or an editor has to decide to changes a sequence because the emotional resonance on the page doesn’t translate to the scene with the score and the coverage that you got that day. It’s so exhilarating to watch.
Rail: How is your thesis production at Yale coming? Its themes, based off of what I remember you telling me, seem to echo those in “Daddy”—how white-led institutions collect minority groups for varying reasons.
Harris: I think the themes intersect but the worlds are so drastically different that I don’t even think you’d recognize it. The play feels closer to Heiner Müller than whomever I’ll be compared to when “Daddy” premieres, which excites me. I’m not Heiner but one minute you’re a Müller fan then suddenly the Müller’s me.