Comfort is an essential component of a certain theatergoing experience. The seating should provide some comfort. Given the money a ticket costs, so, in some ways, should the show. It could be based on something known: television, the movies, the nightly news. It wouldn’t push too hard or be too strange or make people feel worse than they did when they got to that seat. The thing ends, and everybody stands up and claps.
But occasionally, a play ends and nobody really knows what to do, because it just took an audience to outer space, to the center of the earth, to this new electric zone that knows what’s wrong with this country and isn’t afraid to personify it, laugh at it, behold it. Even though the work may take place at hospitals or in the presence of a shrink, it doesn’t care about comfort. It’s haywire, rude, blunt, poetic, self-reflective, sexually unpredictable, emotionally catastrophic, exhaustively acted, intelligent, searching and unafraid.
The work is also black — its blackness providing a lens through which to see and be seen. Its blackness is also what distinguishes it from other plays I’ve seen in the last year about race and racism. In less than 18 months a new class of young and youngish African-American playwrights has established some kind of radical moment in American theater. Their work doesn’t need to exploit topicality (police shootings, this presidency, even the previous one, for the most part) in order to consider black life in this country as a simultaneous current predicament and historically endangered event. It’s responding — with anger, social acuity and structural chaos — to psychic devastation and national trauma, making roommates of today’s dismay and 400 years of horrors.
The authors have names like Jackie Sibblies Drury and Jeremy O. Harris and Aleshea Harris. And amazingly they’ve had six shows staged in New York over the past year and a half — difficult, apocalyptically messy productions where, especially for Ms. Drury’s “Fairview” and “Marys Seacole” and Ms. Harris’s “Is God Is,” the process of cleaning up afterward, seven or eight times a week, would have seemed like a job for a hazmat crew.
[How four playwrights are challenging American theater.]
In different ways, these playwrights are descendants of Pirandello’s freighted absurdism and Brecht’s theories of audience confrontation. But these three don’t feel radical just for the theater. They’d seem radical anywhere in American culture right now, different from a generation of, say, young black musicians trying to re-establish certain R&B traditions or honorably subvert jazz’s hefty history, different from an unprecedented influx of strong black filmmakers. What further distinguishes Ms. Drury, Mr. Harris and Ms. Harris is a belief in the possibilities of form that puts their ingenuity in the larger company of folks like the rappers Tierra Whack, a newbie, and Kanye West, a part-time underdog; and writer-directors like Boots Riley and Jordan Peele.
Two years ago, Mr. West would have been the only one of these people, working in their current mode, who made blips on my radar. Now they’re all part of a standard to which I’m holding all kinds of other artists, all kinds of other products. Is this thing I’m watching, reading, listening to going down deep enough, far out there enough, inward enough? Is it doing the most it can to provoke, unnerve and dazzle me? Is it awake to what else this country is — and has always been?
Mr. Harris has had two shows in a matter of months: “Slave Play” and “‘Daddy.’” And “Slave Play” is the single most daring thing I’ve seen in a theater in a long time (and yes, I’ve been to “The Ferryman”).
It’s outwardly concerned with plantation erotics — naughty house slaves and horny white masters — until it reveals itself to be inwardly concerned with the psychosexual dynamics of plantation erotics. Side 1 presents three discrete slavery scenarios. Side 2 turns those scenarios into group therapy. Those psychosexual dynamics demonstrate what spells Mr. Harris can cast as a dramatist, dialogist, satirist and shrink.
[Broadway on race: It’s more likely to comfort than confront.]
“‘Daddy’” doesn’t knock you out in the same way. It’s a play about a young black artist and the older, white art collector he’s living with. It’s needier, full of monotonously needy people. It doesn’t have the four-dimensional self-revelation of “Slave Play,” or its sense of itself as a contraption. But both works show off Mr. Harris’s irreverence. Both works underscore his youth. (He’s 29.)
Ms. Drury’s “Fairview,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and “Marys Seacole” are just as daring as “Slave Play” — and maybe more out there. “Fairview,” very loosely, is about a family dinner that gets dysfunctional after one act, farcical after two and like Armageddon after three. The meal being prepared and fretted over is restaged, but the dialogue in the repeated version has been replaced by the voices of white actors having an increasingly specific conversation about race. The mounting tension blows up in the finale, after which one of the show’s actors invites the white people in the audience to come to the stage so she can have a moment to herself with everybody else.
“Marys Seacole” — very, very loosely — is about a Jamaican caregiver, in both the 19th century and this one, whose ambitions exceed the white medical establishment’s interest in her. The show moves, among other places, from aristocratic old-world Kingston to a modern medical facility in the United States to a battlefield in Crimea. But the locations keep bleeding into one another.
The thrill of both plays is how metaphysical and structurally unstable they are. Ms. Drury likes repetition and circularity and how that circle is really more of a spiral and how, after two or three acts, the spiral starts to look an awful lot like the fuse of a bomb. For the audience, the stress (the riveting, delightful stress) comes from not knowing when this play is going to detonate — and how?
Ms. Harris might be the biggest surprise of these three — her second piece is an ornate elegy called “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” — since her work is the least obviously polished. But to watch “Is God Is” is to see a playwright as lawless as any of her peers has been. It’s about twin sisters who fulfill their mother’s wish that they execute their father. (“Make your Daddy dead. Dead. Dead. All the way dead.”) In 90 minutes, it manages to get from somewhere in Atlanta to the American West.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a crude, physically one-dimensional production explode into something as emotionally and psychologically panoramic. It’s as if the artifice falls utterly away, and you’re wherever Ms. Harris insists you are. Decades of moviemakers, novelists and playwrights have been trying to unlock the mysteries of Sam Shepard. This woman is the first to convince me she’s got a key. “Is God Is” signals the arrival of a very good playwright. It also feels like the staking of a major claim.
Ms. Drury, Ms. Harris and Mr. Harris have classmates. I’d put Branden Jacobs-Jenkins among them, as being young and exceptionally good. But by bearing down on what is — and isn’t — human (or humane), his work — namely “An Octoroon” and “Gloria” — makes formally sophisticated, aggressively anthropological, unexpected challenges to what a black playwright is even “supposed” to be writing plays about. His answer appears to be whatever he wants.
The subject of all these plays — and of pretty much everything other black American playwrights have been doing for at least the last four years, in work both brilliant and boring — is trauma. Not just the pitiable state of this moment, but the centuries-long, hundred-car pileup that has always been being a black person in this country. Trauma is history with a head wound, and it’s what unites black artists across mediums — the legacy of racial pain, how to live with it, and, sometimes, how to wield it.
Trauma puts Ms. Drury, Mr. Harris and Ms. Harris in the company of esteemed peers like Tarell Alvin McCraney and, master elders like Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks and August Wilson (whose mystic streak makes him a supernatural forebear), and once-radical, racial-confrontational stage classics like George C. Wolfe’s 33-year-old “The Colored Museum.”
What’s exhilarating about this moment is how it’s tethered to theater’s past but is freer to be more lunatic in its blackness. Jordan E. Cooper’s “Ain’t No Mo’” comes out of the “Colored Museum” tradition in its gathering of a handful of sketches around blackness in crisis. What the show lacks in ideological coherence and intellectual rigor it almost makes up for in ferocity, humor, pathos and lunacy. Mr. Cooper is 24. He’s still trying to figure out what to do with this pain.
Ms. Parks’s “White Noise” wonders whether the answer to trauma is to just make yourself a slave. That’s what her protagonist does after an incident with the police: enslaves himself to his white best friend. Ms. Parks can’t find a groove for the farce or a steady gear for the tragedy. The show is simultaneously about the presentation of surfaces and, as drama, superficial. Everybody in “White Noise” speaks in proscriptions and diatribes. They can present the aching, but none of them actually aches.
What Ms. Drury, Mr. Harris and Ms. Harris do with form as an expression of trauma is wild. Instability is built into the very structure of their plays. The sets are destroyed — trashed. But so is everything else. These plays trash living rooms, relationships, logic, hope. The weight of all that this country is and has done just cracks the works’ themes open. Knowing the history is traumatizing. And that knowledge terrorizes their comfort. Even coherence feels like a luxury — and it isn’t that we can’t afford it. These playwrights are saying we don’t deserve it. They’re not going to handhold and explicate. They won’t let you play dumb or give you Racism for Dummies.
They know how their extraordinary machines function. These are plays with abrupt changes of time and space. They’re built like trap doors, figurative ones, and with wormholes, through which everybody falls: characters, audiences, props. And those abrupt alterations of place and meaning function as indictments of an endless history. These are plays that know who, given the socioeconomics of theatergoing in cities like New York, is coming to see them. They know that nobody in the house is immune to the physics of the falling, and yet they sense that some of us might have farther to fall than everybody else.
And that might be why it’s been harder for audiences to leap to their feet at the end of “Slave Play” than for a travesty like “American Son,” a drama by Christopher Demos-Brown, who is white, that coasted on headlines about police shootings but lacked the moral imagination to do more than turn its invisible black victim into an anecdote. It’s easy to applaud when racism is a problem of law enforcement.
The thrill of this generation of black playwrights is that they’ve harnessed the true power of the theater. It’s their gamble on danger, their trust in risk that may explain why none of them has yet made it to Broadway. They don’t give a damn about your comfort.