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His plays ask their audiences to confront their own complicity in prejudice

“DADDY” OPENS with a young, perfectly sculpted black man named Franklin (played by Ronald Peet) emerging from a swimming pool. His white host, a rich, silver-haired art collector named Andre, looks on lustily and lunges for the younger man’s legs (“mmmm…smooth. Like the sweetest chocolate”). Later, after the characters become lovers, Andre (a cool, reptilian Alan Cumming) repeatedly smacks Franklin’s bare buttocks, playfully but not without menace. These are unnerving scenes. In an American theatre, watching a powerful white man hungrily appraise and then slap a naked black body is inescapably fraught.

A co-production of the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre, “Daddy” had its premiere on March 5th. It was written by Jeremy O. Harris, a 29-year-old playwright who has emerged onto America’s theatre scene with the speed and vigour of a geyser. He is swiftly earning a reputation for exploring discomforting ideas about race and sex with humour, intellectual rigour, nods to pop culture and an engaging sense of spectacle. His“Slave Play”, which dramatised a darkly amusing form of antebellum sex therapy for interracial couples, opened off-Broadway to rapturous reviews in December. “Daddy” features a full pool (a remarkable bit of staging that cost almost $100,000), a gospel choir and Mr Cumming crooning George Michael’s creepily seductive hit, “Father Figure”.

Given that he has yet to graduate from Yale School of Drama, the playwright has made quite a splash. Producers rarely back student writers, but, says Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop, which put on “Slave Play”, they made an exception for Mr Harris. The play “felt so urgent, so much a part of where the conversation is right now,” he says. “Jeremy’s got this intellectual metabolism working at warp speed,” says Amy Herzog, a playwright and lecturer at Yale. “There’s no safety net, for him or [the audience].”

The timing is auspicious for his brand of provocation. Mr Harris, who is black and gay, asks his audiences—who tend to be older, white and left-leaning—to confront their own complicity in prejudice. In “Daddy”, Franklin, himself an artist, tries to explain to Andre why they are destined to have different reactions to a sculpture by an African-American that deals with slavery and blackness. “It’s not a nightmare or a dream you’re sharing, it’s a nightmare or a dream you’re witnessing,” he tells his white lover. Andre denies that it is necessary to share an artist’s experiences to appreciate the work. “Beauty is beauty is beauty, Franklin. No matter whose eyes are seeing it.” He relishes the edginess of having a young black boyfriend, but has little interest in his point of view.

Growing up in Martinsville, Virginia, Mr Harris was introduced to the potential of theatre by Shakespeare. “He was a populist,” Mr Harris explains. “He knew at the end of the day our brains get off on all the things that we’re ashamed of.” But it was a teacher’s recommendation of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “In the Blood”, about a mother struggling to bring up five children, which helped him imagine an “expressive, huge, epic and unapologetic” theatrical world beyond the safe, mostly white stories that were typically told on stage. “It made it seem possible to make a play that could speak to me.”

Mr Harris’s plays are about power and relationships; they hover at the intersection of violence and desire. His characters, many of them queer, often speak past each other. This sense of disconnection is political, he says. It is meant to show “how the simple act of not listening to people without power actually feeds power”. In his script notes for “Daddy”, he writes: “Everybody talks but no one listens. Have fun with that.”

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "A bigger splash"
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