Is London ready for Slave Play? How boycotts, walkouts, and Rishi Sunak made this the hottest ticket in town

Jeremy O Harris’s much talked-about play arrives from Broadway to London’s Noël Coward theatre this week (Getty Images)
Jeremy O Harris’s much talked-about play arrives from Broadway to London’s Noël Coward theatre this week (Getty Images)

Is Broadway ready for Slave Play?” asked The New York Times before Jeremy O Harris’ taboo-breaking production opened back in 2019. So anticipated was its 17-week run, attended by Scarlett Johansson, Harry Styles, and Rihanna, that afterwards they ran a second piece: “Was Broadway ready for Slave Play?” The answer today remains as split as the reviews. Now, as Slave Play makes its UK debut at the Noël Coward Theatre, as incendiary and controversial as ever, the question rings out: is London ready?

Not if the ex-prime minister’s reaction is anything to go by. The play, nominated for a record-breaking 12 Tony awards in 2021, has already caused much huffing and puffing here in the UK. In February, a spokesperson for Rishi Sunak condemned Harris’s decision to hold nights exclusively for Black audiences as “wrong” and “divisive”. And in doing so, kickstarted a buzz-worthy press circuit for a play he hadn’t even seen. Admittedly, seeing it would likely only ruffle more of his feathers.

Slave Play tells the story of three interracial couples hoping to reinvigorate their sex lives by partaking in “antebellum sex therapy” – a concept that roughly translates to plantation-era roleplay. Petticoats included. In one moment, Kaneisha (Olivia Washington) plays as a Black slave who wants the white “Massa” Jim (the first stage role for Game of Thrones star Kit Harington since he played Henry V in 2022) to call her “Negress” while she cleans the floor.

It would be wrong to say more, yet even a blow-by-blow of the play’s two-hour plot wouldn’t prepare you for the shock of what unfolds on stage. The plot trafficks in degrading images of Black people, particularly Black women, and makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing; an interrogation of race, sexuality and the psychological legacy of slavery. Much of it is – deliberately – played for laughs.

Written when 35-year-old Harris, who is Black and queer, was still a student at Yale School of Drama, Slave Play scooped a record haul of 12 Tony nods in 2021, though it won none. When it premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in 2018, a petition for its immediate closure, launched by a Black woman who described it as “one of the most disrespectful displays of anti-Black sentiment” she had seen, garnered over 6,000 signatures. The cast received death threats, and the hashtag #ShutDownSlavePlay was set up. Its subsequent Broadway run was less plagued by outrage, but still regularly attracted walkouts. Reviews were mostly glowing. (An HBO documentary about all the hoopla, directed by Harris, debuted at Tribeca Film Festival last month.)

Some people have accused Harris of racism; others said the play was discriminatory to white people. Most troubling to the playwright himself were Black audiences who suggested he wrote it for white consumption. “That’s so bizarre to me,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “Because the first audience I ever wrote this for was an audience of my classmates at Yale. And the people who were most upset by it, back then, were the white viewers.” Elsewhere, he said: “I would say, in this moment, where so many Black artists are getting opportunities for the first time, it can feel like you have to make Black art for all Black people.”

Slave Play is a rarity in the fact that it is actually as provocative as the headlines would have you believe. That A-lister Harington’s casting in its London iteration is a mere footnote is a testament to that. Regardless of your feelings towards Slave Play, it is true what the Los Angeles Times wrote: “No theatrical work in recent memory has had the same seismic impact.”

The commotion was only amplified when it was announced that Harris would be bringing his tradition of “Black Out” nights this side of the Atlantic, whereby Black audiences are invited to experience the play “free from white gaze” for two performances. While legally speaking no one can be barred from attending, the move was predictably controversial – with No 10 and beyond. Never mind the fact that only seven per cent of audiences at arts council-funded theatres were Black in 2021-2022 – or that similar initiatives, undertaken to encourage a more diverse theatre crowd, have taken place in London theatres for years. Harris previously introduced Black Out nights for Daddy, his acclaimed play about a young, gay Black artist and an older white art collector, which came to the Almeida in 2022.

Olivia Washington and Kit Harington in rehearsals for the London run of ‘Slave Play’ (Helen Murray)
Olivia Washington and Kit Harington in rehearsals for the London run of ‘Slave Play’ (Helen Murray)

Responding to Sunak’s wagging finger, Harris wrote on X/Twitter: “There’s literally a war going on… maybe the death of thousands of Palestinian children should be more ‘concerning’ than a playwright attempting to make the West End more inclusive to those who aren’t historically invited there.” In a similar drive for inclusivity, Slave Play will release 30 pay-what-you-can tickets every Wednesday.

Harris has always been vocal about his desire to increase diversity in theatre. Alongside discounted tickets and Black Out nights, his team have done targeted outreach, including ad spots on a popular hip-hop R&B radio station in the US. In 2021, he pulled Slave Play from a theatre in Los Angeles in protest over the company’s lack of representation of women playwrights. He previously told The Guardian: “The challenges we are setting are not the box office or how much money we can make. It’s: how can we change what the next generation of theatre-goers look like?” (While Slave Play’s Broadway run did not recoup its $3.9 million investment – very few do – producers were happy with its performance, noting that 100,000 people went to see it.)

Jeremy O Harris wrote the first draft of ‘Slave Play’ when he was still a student at Yale School of Drama (Rob Latour/Shutterstock)
Jeremy O Harris wrote the first draft of ‘Slave Play’ when he was still a student at Yale School of Drama (Rob Latour/Shutterstock)

The Black Out nights do more than encourage diversity, however. “Especially for a show like Slave Play, which bluntly confronts the lingering traumas of slavery on Black Americans, being one of a handful of Black people in the room can have a profoundly unsettling effect on your experience,” wrote critic Aisha Harris in an op-ed The New York Times. In the same article, the play’s star Joaquina Kalukango added: “If you’re a Black person coming into it with a majority white audience, what you never get is the complete freedom to hear all of the words. Instead, your experience becomes about your white neighbour and how they’re receiving it. What are they laughing at?”

Harris, too, has spoken about the joy of seeing “a room full of other Black faces laughing at the same moments, having the same epiphanies, crying at the same moments, and feeling the same depths”. There has been, however, an equal amount of censure from Black audiences over his depiction of Black sexuality. In a recent interview, the playwright said he has come to a place of understanding with his detractors. “We need to recognise that it’s OK to say, ‘that’s not for me’ without saying it’s offensive and should not exist,” he said, adding that, as ever, making audiences comfortable is the last thing on his mind.

All this is to say, then, that Slave Play arrives on British shores this week with a ton of baggage. Is London ready?

‘Slave Play’ is at the Noël Coward Theatre in London from 29 June to 21 September