Jeremy O. Harris gets candid in “Theater Reimagined: Race, Culture and Radical Voice”

Zac Bentz, A&E Reporter

Dressed in a camel-colored turtleneck and an emerald green silk shawl, and framed with thin wisps of smoke from an off-screen incense stick, Jeremy O. Harris — mastermind behind the subversive Broadway hit “Slave Play” —addressed the greater Whitman community on Friday, Feb. 12. The Whitman Events Board, in conjunction with the Intercultural Center, hosted the renowned playwright and screenwriter for a lecture entitled, “Theater Reimagined: Race, Culture & Radical Voice.” 

When Harris was introduced by WEB moderators Wako Soma and Kainat Ansari as “the queer Black savior the theater world needs,” he made a point of distancing himself from that designation. He remarked at the start of the event, “that’s an insane thing to put on any one person’s shoulders.”

The lecture was put on as part of Whitman’s Race, Violence and Health academic theme, and served as a venue for Harris to speak candidly about his views on racism, representation and the importance of humor.

These topics were addressed through a series of anecdotes documenting Harris’s journey from Martinsville, VA, to the graduate program at the Yale School of Drama. He spoke openly about experiences of racial gaslighting, being cut from DePaul University’s theater program and the disproportionate obscurity of playwrights of color — stopping every so often to light up a cigarette or point his camera at his collection of plays.

Though the event’s overall tone was playful, Harris never hesitated to delve into the more uncomfortable details of his story. He described a particularly painful experience involving a high school classmate who used a racial slur without consequence and was defended by classmates when confronted. It was one of many revelatory moments for Harris about the realities of being Black in predominantly white spaces. 

“The world around you is constantly gaslighting you,” he said. Finding solace in the works of various Black and Asian playwrights, Harris began to immerse himself in the world of theater.

“My only safe place was in great work that pushed me toward knowing more about myself,” Harris said. 

While he focused primarily on his experiences navigating the landscape of American theater, Harris also addressed broader collective anxieties about art, representation and social justice.

“We’re in the 2020s now,” Harris said. He spoke about the ways in which the structural and cultural changes of the 2010s were reminiscent of those seen in the 1910s, and how in both cases the ways in which we experience closeness and connection were fundamentally altered. 

Harris recounted how the events of the 1910s gave rise to cultural events such as the Harlem Renaissance—a surge of radical work by minorities in the 1920s—and the “Fire!!” publication—a literary magazine founded by a coalition of Black novelists, poets and playwrights including Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, that only managed to publish one issue before its headquarters burned to the ground. He suggested that the artistic landscape of the 2020s might give rise to some truly radical work. “[Let’s] lean into it and see what happens,” he said.

According to Soma, a sophomore member of the Whitman Events Board, inviting a resident of the theater world to speak at a Race, Violence and Health event was no accident.

“We decided on the theme of bringing someone that was involved in the theater/film industry in, because we kind of reflected on our community at Whitman, how it’s a predominantly white institution, how there may be challenges for people of color, like myself or others, who may feel like the theater department is very white, and very not-inclusive,” Soma said. 

Soma said that she hopes Whitman’s theater department takes note of Harris’s comments on the importance of creating spaces that are safe for everyone to fully express all facets of their humanity.

“Sometimes events just happen, and it’s like, ‘okay, we’re done.’ We can talk about it with our peers, but then there’s nothing that happens afterwards that is influential. Personally, I went to almost all the plays last year, as a first-year student, because I love plays, and I love theater, dance, all that. And I did notice that lack of diversity. And so with that in mind, I hope that this event can shine some light on, you know, being more inclusive.”

Upon hearing that Harris would be speaking, Piper Toohey, a junior Rhetoric major, was elated. They had seen the premiere of Harris’s play “Daddy” in New York and had been blown away by it.

“I was like, ‘Okay, so Jeremy O. Harris is, like, a genius, then. Got it.’ Now I’m just obsessed with him,” Toohey said.

For Toohey, their biggest takeaways were Harris’s emphatic affirmation of the value of spaces for open and honest conversation and his take on the role of representation in storytelling. 

“I like that he talks about the way that collaborating and having conversations is really important,” Toohey said. “When he said that students should have salons, I was like, ‘YES! That is correct!’ . . . I also really liked what he said [about how] art should never be an advertisement, and people should just be able to tell [their] story without it representing [their] entire race, gender or sexuality. And I really believe in that, but I also think that that kind of, like, exposure therapy really gets people over it. Like, you know, seeing conflicting narratives, and seeing people try something new and being shocked. Theater has always done that. Theater has always been absurd, and, like, made people uncomfortable. And I think that’s what’s important about it.”

Harris ended his talk on a somewhat somber note, claiming that he doesn’t have a lot of hope in much of anything these days. Though the one thing that does make him feel hopeful is humor.

“If you are deemed undesirable and can still laugh at the world,” Harris said, “then that’s where our power lies.”