Get to Know Jeremy O. Harris, the Radical Playwright Behind Slave Play

Get to Know Jeremy O. Harris, the Radical Playwright Behind Slave Play

“I’m charismatic, critical, and discerning. And I’m a really good time,” the bold dramatist told us. 

“I’m charismatic, critical, and discerning. And I’m a really good time,” the bold dramatist told us. 

Text: Dylan Kelly

Illuminating the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality in his eye-opening production of Slave Play, controversial dramaturge Jeremy O. Harris is certainly one to watch. After a sold-out run at the New York Theater Workshop, the 30-year-old playwright debuted his vivid storyline on the main stage of Broadway’s John Golden Theater earlier this month on October 6. On his hopes for the play’s impact, he explained to us, “I want to create a landscape where people are thinking about the work of creating a play that's not meant to entertain but meant to invoke thought.” Painting a new landscape for Broadway and carving a space in the theater world for necessary conversations on racism and bigotry, Harris is breaking theater’s status quo for all the right reasons. 

Throughout his childhood, Harris Growing up in a small town in Virginia, Harris lacked exposure to large dramatic arts programs and productions. Fortunately, his high school drama teacher provided an outlet for students to explore the arts, and that outlet quickly turned into a dedicated passion for Harris. On the impact his high school had on his growth as an artist, the playwright explained, “I had agency and I was doing work that I wanted to do at school and the kind of work I that could fuel me to do better inside of that space which is really cool.” Harris cemented his devotion to theater and performance arts early on, allowing him to explore each role in the production process. 

Upon arriving at DePaul University’s acting program, Harris realized he not only had a passion for acting, but he also contained a vast knowledge of the history and of plays that gave him the ability to explore writing his own. "That epiphany sparked this energy in me to write plays when I didn't feel like I was getting offered the kind of work I wanted to get offered at school,” Harris explained. “I wrote a couple of small scenes that were only little seeds of ideas and everyone responded to them really well.” Harris garnered mass attention to his playwriting abilities, so much so that his work was actually published in literary magazines while he was still in school. Although he found great success in writing, Harris still had his eyes set on becoming an actor and held back from fully committing to his word-working craft. “I didn't want to indulge in my writing too much at the time because it was like you're either an actor or a playwright. You can't do both,” he explained. 

Putting his writing abilities on the back burner, Harris set out for Los Angeles after college to pursue his acting dreams. There, he found that acting wasn’t fulfilling him in the way that he had imagined. After auditioning and performing sides for many indie films and studio movies, Harris concluded that young black characters simply weren’t given an equal opportunity on screen. It was then that the aspiring actor realized he wanted to shift his focus to creating space in the acting world for all voices to be heard. Capitalizing on his ability to bring emotions to life on paper, Harris set out to hone in on his playwriting craft more seriously. 

Harris received admission to the Yale School of Drama, where he was able to explore both acting and playwriting to their fullest extent. In his first year, he was the most cast person in the Yale Cabaret, playing seven roles in seven entirely different plays. On top of his involvement in Yale’s acting scene, Harris spent most of his time in dramaturgy classes studying dramatic criticism and working alongside several acclaimed playwrights to perfect his culminating thesis play. 

Through intensively delving into both acting and playwriting on an academic level, Harris developed the skill to meld the two when writing a story. “I cry sometimes when I'm writing a scene for a character. I'm not crying because of what they're saying; I'm crying because I'm saying it as them when I'm writing it. They take over for a second,” he explained. “I feel like I'm always acting on the page, which is why my dialogue moves so much quicker than some of the other things in my writing.” The playwright’s acting experience allows for his emotional approach to pen-on-paper, which certainly comes to life in the words of Slave Play.

After graduating from Yale last May, Harris went straight to work on the production of his first Broadway debut. An invigorating drama of both comedy and tragedy, Slave Play is most definitely the first of its kind. Harris places a radical rendition of typical plays on theater’s mainstage in order to inform, influence, and inspire viewers to open their eyes to new perspectives on issues of race, gender, sexuality, and so much more. It’s a powerfully uncomfortable exhibition of voice, sharing the stories of the discriminated in an unfiltered manner.  

“I just hope that the cultural impact of this play is for people our age to end up going to the theater in droves, hungrily and fervently,” Harris explained on his intentions with the Broadway production. “I want to have theater be the thing that people are talking about each week instead of a new episode of Thirteen Reasons Why or Game of Thrones.” Now that Slave Play has officially hit Broadway, Harris is certainly making noise among the theater community and altering the stigma around attending drama productions, to the point that the play’s run-time has actually been extended until January 19 of next year. 

When asked what he wanted to be remembered for, Harris boldly responded, “I want to be remembered as someone who took up space and also made space.” The young playwright is already accomplishing his goals to both establish and fill space in society with Slave Play's major success, and this is only the beginning. 

Find tickets to Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play at the Golden Theater on the play’s website, and take a look at photos of the playwright alongside the show’s cast below. 

Emilio Madrid

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