Ato Blankson-Wood Unpacks the "Power and Pain" of Slave Play

Curated via Twitter from W Magazine’s twitter account….

That idea of power reminds me that, going back to Act I, Gary is in a different position than the other two black characters going through this "slave play" therapy.

How did you strike the balance of Gary having power over Dustin in Act I during their "slave play" therapy, only to have it revoked again in Act II when he’s back in the realm of the real world? It’s layered.

A ColorLines op-ed, for example, called the play “the same variation of ‘White people are terrible’ with nothing else going on,” and charged it with stripping “the darkest-skinned Black woman onstage of agency by reducing her fetishes and desires to subservience.

This play has reached people outside of academia, outside of theater, outside of New York, and it makes some bold and true statements about black people and black stories being inexplicably linked to historical oppression.

I think the white people I know who’ve seen the play would be nervous to openly dismiss aspects of this play, even though there have, of course, been instances in which a white person openly disliked the show.

Part of the reason I made sure it was my sisters and my cousin who were there for opening night is that this play centers on black women.

Spoilers ahead, in case you haven’t already seen it, but Act I introduces the audience to three interracial couples (one black person, the other white) on a Virginia cotton plantation: Kaneisha and Jim, Philip and Alana, and Dustin and Gary.

Act II reveals that the narrative actually takes place in present day, with each couple participating in a (fictional) role-play exercise called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, acting out a version of the master-slave dialectic to cure the black partners of their anhedonia, or inability to feel sexual pleasure. (It’s here where the title is revealed to be a clever turn of phrase).

When people like Rihanna, whose song “Work” is a key element of the play, started showing up to see Slave Play, did that affect your performance at all? It didn’t at all.

How did that idea of music or sonic repetition playing inside of someone’s mind in a traumatic moment end up in the play, and how did you, as an actor, conceptualize what that would do to a person like Gary?

In S&M play, the sub is technically the one with the power, but I did like being the only black dom.

Gary’s white partner, Dustin, is technically beneath him in terms of the power structure, since Gary is an overseer and Dustin is an indentured servant—a real-life dynamic that not many people are aware of.

But there was something so juicy for me as an actor, that my task was to play a character who’s playing a character who wants to feel powerful and sexy and dominant.

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