The uncancellable Jeremy O. Harris
A conversation with the American playwright about why theater matters, how he'd cast Joe Biden in the American drama, his idea of progress as detox, and his tug of war over quitting social media
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Every so often, a voice lands in the American cacophony and a kind of hush descends. And then it gets very loud, because everyone has to say what they think in response.
That is what happened when Jeremy O. Harris arrived on the scene with “Slave Play,” a brilliant dissection of race and trauma and the American condition which he originally intended just for him and his drama-school pals but — oops — ended up on Broadway.
Jeremy is brilliant. Funny. Deeply read. Glib as needed. Wise. Sassy. And as attuned to the American conversation circa 2020 — and to the American conversation that we need to start having as 2021 dawns — as anyone I have found. So I’m delighted to bring you today this Christmas Eve special: a conversation with Jeremy O. Harris.
And a note to say: Thank you for being part of The Ink’s first year. I love this community we’re building together. If you like these posts and want to help keep them free and open to all, which remains my commitment, do consider subscribing.
“It's the closest thing to church that I have”: a conversation with Jeremy O. Harris
ANAND: You have quickly established yourself as one of the foremost playwrights in this country. But you've also shown that you can communicate, move minds, and awaken consciousness in any number of ways and forms. The playwright choice almost feels arbitrary, given your skill with all these other angles of attack.
Why did theater come to the fore for you, at least at the beginning of your career?
JEREMY: It's actually kind of funny that you are asking this, because I've had to think about it a lot for the last nine months. Because when theater shut down, I had the ability and the privilege to say, "Oops, sucks for you guys, I have other things I can do."
I was just finding out that a fashion line was coming my way. There were all these film and TV things that had just started opening up for me in really phenomenal ways. And yet all I could think about were the plays I wanted to write, and the plays I couldn't imagine writing anymore because I couldn't imagine what that audience would look like.
I also started thinking so deeply about my peers and the community that I was leaving. A community that I spend most of my time complaining about. I thought about it, and I realized that the reason all I wanted to do was write a play in this moment was because theater is the only community-based practice that has a sort of spiritual component and a political component embedded into the form.
When you're in a room with other people and ideas on a stage, you can actually interact with the people who are giving you the ideas. Even if that interaction is just an intake of breath, or a scream of protest, or a nod of agreement. There is an actual exchange that happens between the person delivering these ideas to you and the people witnessing them.
In that moment, there can be this wild alchemy that happens that can actually trigger and change something about the way the person who walked into the theater wanted to live their lives. And I know this sounds crazy and silly, but it's the closest thing to church that I have. And I think it functions very similarly to church, because a good Black church service is Aristotelian in its structure.
I'm not someone who's just doing theater to be a song-and-dance man. I'm someone who's doing theater to engage with the classical idea of how theater functions for a society and for a community. It's sitting around a fire, telling a story that might change the way that people who have come to that fire are going to treat the village that they're part of.
ANAND: What you're articulating, for me, feels like the potential of what theater could be or what it has been. But given what it has been in reality in recent years, given the prices, given the structural barriers you've talked about and tried to change with “Slave Play,” Broadway does not feel remotely like that in its accessibility. The vast range of humanity will never once in their life set foot in one of those theaters.
JEREMY: Yes, that is very true. I can look back at times and spaces, even in the last century in America, when that ideal was closer to normalcy. That makes me feel like, Well, why can't it be that? Why can't I push for that to be the theatrical reality that I live in? Even if it's only for the audience that comes to see plays by Jeremy O. Harris.
If I have to get in bed with someone in order to make our model of theater for the community be under $30 and marketed towards young, brown, Black, and queer people first, then I'll do that, you know what I mean? That's something that excites me more than allowing theater to calcify and stay situated firmly in the realm of elite art for the 1 percent of New Yorkers or Chicagoans or Angelenos who can afford to see a play for $200 a ticket.
ANAND: When I teach narrative writing, one of my mantras, quoting Robert Bresson, is: “Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.”
You can hide ideas in a scene, in a story, in characters. But you'll infect people's minds more effectively if you hide the ideas. “Slave Play” made me question my competence as a teacher, because part of what I loved about it was your embrace of argument as argument. You've spoken about why argument is important in your art — especially given what white audiences have come to expect from Black and brown artists.
Can you talk about that?
JEREMY: I do think that type of discursive theater, a theater that engages in the spectacle of didacticism, is a type of theater that was denied authorship by Black and brown writers for a very long time in the canon. There were definitely artists doing it, and artists doing it quite well. But the artists who we think about when we think of theater that does that are people like Brecht and Tom Stoppard.
When I was working on "Slave Play" specifically, I wanted to live inside of clear, complex ideas that extensively live in academia but in the modern world have sort of distilled themselves down into flattened arguments on social media.
So ideas that are in Saidiya Hartman's “Scenes of Subjection” show up in a 17-year-old’s Tumblr post, but they're watered down, and there's no actual foundation to it. The same is true of people who have sort of Afropessimistic feelings that show up in the reasons why they dislike a movie on Twitter, but they don't know that that's what they're doing. And so the argument ends up not being as fully articulated.
So I was like, Well, what if I did a play where in the second act the people who are in that space have a much clearer foundational understanding of all of these ideas. And yet, much like the audience, they're using these ideas wrong. Or there are parts of these ideas that they haven't fully thought out. And over an hour, because I gave myself that time limit, we will go in and out of these basic theoretical ideas with these eight characters and see if a new theory or new idea can be arrived at by the end.
One of the things that frustrates me a lot about politics right now, especially liberalism, is that there seems to be this idea that there are some ideas that are too complicated for normal people to understand. So we have to dumb everything down and not take the time to explain things to them.
And one of the things that is really fun about the way "Slave Play" works is that because we spend so much time with these ideas, ideas that are sort of outside of the realm of normal discourse for someone like my mom, who's a hairstylist in Virginia, they start to make sense. The gap starts to shrink. It's like being in therapy. Most of us, when we first went to therapy, had no idea about how our brains work or how psychology works. But after sitting for an hour or two hours or three hours with our therapist, all of a sudden certain things that felt intangible started to feel tangible.
ANAND: You mentioned this flattening of ideas by social media. You are subject to the same forces all of us are, which is this 24/7 jury trial by your peers on social media. And it's sometimes a trial that produces just outcomes. And it's sometimes a trial that produces mob pile-ons and vicious behavior, with not a lot of tolerance for what you're trying to do, which is to get people to sit with uncomfortable things, maybe consider an idea that's not their idea but hold it for a second.
How do you relate to the space of social media as a creator? Do you just accept that that is what it is in this time? Do you cut yourself off from it? Do you treat it as a useful form of feedback?
JEREMY: A part of me does feel like I'm in this really, possibly untenable tug of war with social media right now.
Before I was a public figure, social media was my biggest source of inspiration. I drew a lot of ideas from social media. I got to figure out frameworks for things that I adored and frameworks for things that I detested. I got to watch in real time how people's discourse was able to shift, based not on careful and detailed conversation, but the willpower of certain charismatic presences online.
Sometimes those charismatic presences, like yours, are filled with fact, and are open to being wrong, and have a lot of malleability. But also, a lot of the time, the most charismatic people who get the most attention online are people who have completely dogmatic and unbendable ideas about the world.
If you're going to be a pro-Biden liberal, there is no space for you to even articulate enjoyment of an argument made by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
When I entered into the public arena, being someone who is very open to being wrong, and very open to hearing people out and listening to where people's ideas were going, I started to realize that some of the most charismatic people online don't even necessarily believe the things that they say, but say them because they are part of some brand. So it becomes a losing game even to engage with people when you're in the storm of being canceled.
I see myself having this sort of push-pull of keeping up a public identity while also trying to still consume and find inspiration in that space. There's a weight and a pressure of having a public identity online that take a lot of upkeep, that make it more difficult to create. So I think that I might just have to figure out a way to go back to solely consuming, or solely making my practice about presenting and not consuming online. Not even consuming how people are responding to what I'm presenting.
Which is something I know that other people who have public personas and also a writing career do. I have friends who are like, "I tweet these things, and then I give my phone to my assistant, and I don't see what anyone's saying, how people are talking. Maybe I'll get someone to print out the tweets about what's going on this day about X, Y, or Z. But I don't look at how people interact with me anymore."
I think that's a thing that might have be a thing. But I don't know.
ANAND: I want to ask you the flip side of social media. If the first part was about the incoming we all receive, I want to ask you about creating, putting things out in the world. Something I struggle with is what I’d call the spectrum of seriousness. I operate all along a spectrum from extremely trivial, thoughtless ways of communicating with the world to very serious, considered, baked, years-in-the-making ways of communicating with the world, and I'm happy with it. I like a clapback tweet and try to take that seriously as an artform, and I like spending three years on a book and knowing every sentence of that book in my head, and I like everything in between — the five-minute TV hit; toiling over a substantial magazine piece.
You operate across that same vast spectrum, but, as you know, there is this kind of Jonathan Franzeny view out there in the artistic realm that if you are operating down here in the world of the tweet and the TV hit and the clapback, you're not serious up there.
How do you think about that spectrum of seriousness?
JEREMY: I had to just give it up. Because already there was going to be a veneer of me not being serious enough because I am Black and gay. And I'm also charismatic, right? So those three things, combined, make people inherently distrustful of how you move through the world.
And when I saw that people were getting upset with me, or side-eyeing the success I was having, or denigrating the success I was having because I was utilizing the things that make people popular in the age of social media — like Twitter, Instagram, retweets from people like Sarah Paulson or the lead singer of Grizzly Bear in relation to the first run of "Slave Play" — I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to police this if I was also going to try to be successful.
Because those articulations that I wasn't serious enough were attempts by people who hold the keys of power to keep the keys.
When my play was going to Broadway, I had suddenly sort of jumped 30 years ahead in my career. And I wanted to remind people that I was still 30. I had just graduated grad school. There was a lot of experimentation that I wanted to do along the way of figuring out what my voice is and how I wanted to use it.
So I immediately said that the show that I was planning on doing at the Bushwick Starr still had to happen. And it had to happen while my play was on Broadway. I was like, "I want these two things to be happening at the same time. I want people to know that on Broadway I'm doing a show that's extensively selling out every night. Then “downtown” I'm doing a sold-out show for 75 people a night, which I'm starring in, where I'm wearing a jockstrap and sticking fingers up my butt and talking about all the sex I did have and all the writing I didn't do the summer after finding out I was going to Broadway.
That was my way of saying, "Don't deny me my chance to experiment."
ANAND: You said something I love, which is that people shouldn't go to the theater just to watch or be entertained; they should come out wanting to change something about the village they're living in. So I want to ask you about politics.
First of all, how do you read Joe Biden with a theater lens? How do you look at him as a character bursting onto the stage at this particular moment in the American drama?
JEREMY: That's really interesting. People have asked me a lot about Trump, which I find less interesting, but I hadn't really thought about Biden.
What's difficult about Biden is that the truly dramatic figure in Biden's life is Kamala, right? In the same way that Obama was the preeminent figure in Biden’s campaign. There's no space, really, in the dramatic canon for someone like Biden, because Biden is a supporting character who gets his own play.
ANAND: He’s the perpetual vice president.
JEREMY: Yeah, and I think that there's something really significant about that dramatically. Because that's the type of dramaturgy that we see very rarely. Because it's also not like he's the side character who's been conniving — he's not Richard III, right? He hasn't been at the side of these other plays and been angling to be at the center. After his run with Obama, he didn't immediately say, "Me, me, me, I should be the president." You know what I mean? He let Hillary do it, right?
So, in a way, he kind of feels like a Horatio in “Hamlet,” the person who comes to save the day at the very end and comes a little too late. And what happens next was never written by Shakespeare.
So we're in an unwritten moment right now. And yet Biden is surrounded by all of these primal dramatic characters. So there's Pete Buttigieg, who's right there and has this sort of wild, Shakespearean court ambition that is undeniable given his resume. Like, I've never seen someone whose resume was only blighted in any way, shape, or form by whom they have sex with, because otherwise he has an American president's resume. Then there's Kamala, who was his great foe in the primary debates. And somehow went from being his greatest foe, the only person to body him in a debate publicly — who now is his second in line, and who comes with a level of charm offensive that is unparalleled.
So there's all this dramatic potential there. And then we have in Biden himself our Horatio, who is like, "Hey, guys, I ran for president a long time ago. That was something I was excited about then. I was really excited about being right beside Barack Obama, who I think was a great president. I was chill going home. I was very chill. But then a supervillain showed up. And I had the right qualifications to beat him based on my relationship with our last great hero."
ANAND: What you're describing is almost a one-last-job movie.
ANAND: You have done some work with the Biden campaign. Can you tell me about what you helped with, and what you want to see them do?
JEREMY: Well, I actually got in trouble for telling everyone in that letter. So I can't say anything.
ANAND: You've been very public about wanting Biden to revive the Federal Theatre Project. For people who were not here during the New Deal, can you tell people what that is? What would it look like to walk down the street in certain neighborhoods of this country if we were to have that?
JEREMY: When AOC said that Biden might not be the candidate she wanted but he was the candidate we have and “it will be a privilege to lobby him” should he win, it was one of the most amazing examples of leadership anyone could have displayed. I was really excited to model that behavior myself, and I started thinking a lot about the things that I, as a constituent, need to see from a Biden-Harris administration.
Outside of reparations, outside of universal health care, outside of relief of college debt for every citizen in America who has it, the No. 1 thing I thought about was my community. One of the important things about the theater is that it provides the community with a soul and a space for catharsis. So FDR put Hallie Flanagan in charge of the Federal Theatre Project. I can't remember the exact digits on how much money it was, but it was many millions of dollars, which got put into various theater groups around the country. It helped start up the regional theater movement. Theaters that hadn't existed in places like Iowa and Kentucky and all over the Midwest and all down the West Coast could now exist because of this funding from the Federal Theatre Project. They also made it a point to give money specifically to Black and brown Americans who wanted to start theater companies. It created the first moment of true American excellence in the realm of theater on a global level.
ANAND: You grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before ending up north. Tell me about the origins of your political awareness against the backdrop of your family and education.
JEREMY: What's really funny is that my family wasn't political, but my best friend's mom was. She was hyper-political, and so was my best friend. I remember we were in sixth grade, and she took us to see a Michael Moore movie. I liked the fact that she enjoyed how complete my ideas felt at such a young age. And the way in which my best friend could have really intense arguments about big ideas at such a young age really thrilled her.
When you're a child, when you thrill someone with your mind, it gives you a type of self-awareness of your power that you stay attracted to. So you keep figuring out ways to foster that same thing. So that was where a lot of my political awareness came from. We were like baby Marxists on a military base, anti-war Marxists who would go to Howard Dean rallies and be like, "We want Howard Dean for president." When all the kids on our military base were like, "We want Bush."
ANAND: One of the great political challenges that I'm interested in is how we deal with tens of millions of Americans — especially men, especially white people — who struggle to see themselves in an egalitarian future that looms, who struggle to figure out how they're going to share power with others.
There are a lot of people who understandably say, "That's not my work. I don't want to worry about those folks. I don't want to help change their minds." It's their job not to be racist, not to be misogynistic, and then they can show up when they're done with that work.
And I wonder what your view of that problem is as an artist. Do you see yourself as part of this historic challenge of helping millions of Americans make peace with progress, make peace with the loss of privilege, make peace with change? Do you see that as not your work? Do you see that as very much part of what you're out to do?
JEREMY: Again, thinking about social media, if I answer this in a certain way, people will be like, "See, I told you, it affirms that he writes for white people." And it's like, "No, I write for an audience of people. But the first audience is always myself."
That's something that I'm constantly struggling with: How do I rid myself of as much of the toxic gas that is around me, around my psyche, as possible? I think that for me that work begins and ends around how well I'm detoxifying my own mind and my own psyche first.
How can I expect myself to be able to do it for anyone else if I can't do it for myself? There's this false notion that because I'm queer, and because I'm Black, I must think that I am so much farther ahead of everyone else around me. And I'm definitely farther ahead than Ted Cruz. But I'm sure that there are people whom I'm attempting to reach who have different relationships to other spaces that I'm deeply poisoned in. That if I'm not doing the work to detoxify that part of my brain as well as parts of their brains that are toxic to me, then I'm not going to do that work.
The most toxic place in my brain for the longest time was ability. I grew up in a very ablest household. I grew up in a military household. Masculinity worked around ability. I remember when I had to wear glasses, there was a whole thing that my stepfather made about me wearing glasses and how that had ruined something about me. Through the work of writing about others, reading about others, I was able to detoxify a lot of my ableist thoughts.
But there's probably someone who has a much better relationship, foundationally, to those ideas than I do, who might be more toxic when it comes to ideas of queerness or more toxic when it comes to ideas about race. So if I'm writing empathetically and complexly, I might be able to detoxify some of that for them. But I can only do that if I'm not toxic in the other places, too.
ANAND: I love this idea of the American experiment as a great, collective, omnidirectional detox.
JEREMY: Yes, absolutely. I think that's what it is.
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