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Playwright Jeremy O. Harris doesn't miss 'theater in a building'

How will theater weather the pandemic? Especially in its more fearless forms, it will always adapt to reach audiences, said Jeremy O. Harris.

"The voices that will matter the most right now will be the voices that are radical and that are finding a way to make their voice heard no matter what," Harris, the playwright and actor behind "Slave Play," told the PBS NewsHour. "They don't need a building."

The pandemic forced theaters to close on Broadway in mid-March, halting productions through 2020. And when — or if — theaters finally do reopen, social distancing rules could make rehearsals more difficult and end up limiting ticket sales.

But Harris is watching what's happening outside these traditional spaces for live theater, paying attention to the "very obvious theater" that's happening on social media, on digital stages and "literally in our streets."

"I'm really interested in how theater, at its core, is about bringing people together in order to do a civic duty. And that civic duty is about engaging with some piece of culture that shifts or reframes how you see the world that you interact with every day. So possibly, you can be a better citizen," Harris said.

In 2018, Jeremy O. Harris explained that moment when his private school experience growing up shaped his identity and work. Video by PBS NewsHour.

At 29, Harris made a name for himself when "Slave Play" debuted on Broadway last year. Billed as an "antebellum fever dream," the three-act play is about a group of interracial couples who take on "sexual performance therapy" at a retreat. The play provoked discussions over race, sex and power, and confronts the history of chattel slavery.

After "Slave Play" finished its run in January, Harris moved to London for a new production, "Daddy," which navigates an affair between a young Black artist and an older, rich, white art collector. When the Almeida Theater temporarily closed in March due to the pandemic, Harris decided to stay in the United Kingdom.

The PBS NewsHour caught up with him from East London to discuss why the stage isn't necessarily something he misses right now, how protests are a form of theater, and what young artists can do to cope during the pandemic.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The spread of COVID-19 has shut down Broadway for the year. What does the pandemic mean for live theater now?

I think that live theater never left. A lot of people have been really sad that some buildings closed down, and it's been really frustrating. There is the fact that the labor that happens in those buildings keeps roofs over people's houses and feeds families — and I totally recognize and respect that. But I think that a lot of the bemoaning of the ways in which people can't go see their favorite musical in Times Square, [there are] people going to the very obvious theater that's been happening all over social media and the sort of digital stage and literally in our streets. Even the anti-COVID protests that happen for all these white workers in Michigan and in the Midwest, to Black Lives Matter and the ways in which Black Lives Matter, the moment became maybe the largest spectacle to open the decade with, right? And not "spectacle" in the sense of some superficiality, but spectacle in the true sense of the Aristotelian function of spectacle in the "Poetics." Something that's necessary for us to get to catharsis, something that's necessary for us to get to a moment of recognition. And so I think that I'm less interested in any of those buildings. I'm not interested in what's happening with them now, or what's going to happen to them later because a lot of them don't seem to be interested in what's happening on the streets in a real embodied way. So that shows that they have less of an investment in the actual theater that matters to my life than the theater that might matter to the bourgeoisie, you know, upper crust, wealthy, white audiences they generally cater to.

What do you miss about live theater and the physical community it fosters?

Theater in a building is not something I miss right now. Because I think so many things about 2020 have been about reflection and reconsideration, and looking at the fact that, in the past 100 years, there've been so many amazing, transformative, inventive contributions to the stage, and into the idea of what theater is or can be, that make reference to things from 200, 300, 400 to 500 years ago that had been generally ignored by the theatrical industrial complex that I'm a part of. I'm less interested in thinking about theater in the buildings and what I miss about it and more about all the theater that's around me and what I've been learning from that.

I've been learning a lot from the ways in which kids are able to make digital stages for themselves on TikTok, that can build out audiences in these really huge, incredibly discursive ways. I'm really interested in how theater, at its core, is about bringing people together in order to do a civic duty. And that civic duty is about engaging with some piece of culture that shifts or reframes how you see the world that you interact with every day. So possibly, you can be a better citizen. I'm seeing that happen on Twitter in these moments of discursive arguments, in these moments of these op-eds, and the response to the op-eds, and then the response to the response to the op-eds. That has been a more exciting and nostalgic theater for me than anything that I saw on a stage in the last two seasons.

So do you think 2020 has brought — and could bring — a well-needed change in theater?

I don't know that theater has brought a change exactly because I feel like so much of a change would have to mean that it would last. And I think, though, I'm saying that my relationship to those things has changed. I think that there are other theater artists whose relationship to it has changed. But I don't know that the world of the theater or the industry has made — or seems to be interested in — any actual structural changes.

Do you think that radical theater will be affected because it will be harder to be financed?

No, I don't think radical theater ever needs anyone to finance it. Radical theater finds a way. And radical theater finds a place. Mediocre theater here will be harder to finance because if you've made something mediocre, you're not going to put yourself on the line to have people see it necessarily. Rather, if you're making something radical, you will find a way to get it to the people that you want to see it.

And what about young and new voices? Do you think this pandemic will disrupt their emergence?

It's all about how you see emergence, and all about how you're looking at this moment. It definitely will mean that a lot of young playwrights won't be able to have the type of entrance into a theatrical season in New York that me or Aleshea Harris or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins or a litany of other writers have had over the last decade. But it doesn't mean their lives or their careers are stunted because of this moment. Actually, think again. The voices that will matter the most right now will be the voices that are radical and that are finding a way to make their voice heard no matter what. So that they don't need a building. They don't need some theater company with like three Exxon execs on their executive board to pay for them to do their first play, for it to matter. They will do the play in a basement over Zoom. And somehow it will capture the people it's supposed to capture because they might crack the actual way to do a play in that form that makes it feel like you're in a theater again or makes it feel like you're in your high school again, or whatever you need to feel like in order to connect to a piece of stagecraft that you're witnessing. Every audience will release something different to feel like they have been awoken to the beauty and the complexities of stagecraft. And so, that person or those young voices that really matter right now are going to throw away a lot of the things that have been done and successful for other people, five years, three years, a year for them and bring something utterly and unapologetically new and necessary. And that's basically been the ways of the most exciting voices to come to fruition since the advent of any art form.

So what kind of future do you imagine for theater? Where do you think the future of theater is going? What is it going to look like?

I don't know. A lot of the theater I've been speaking about is a theater that is both a part of the present and a part of the future, because it's not being witnessed by enough people in the present, right? Not being recognized as such by the people in the present. So I think that more theater in the future will look and feel and sound more ungainly, less easy, maybe more civic-minded than any theater that we're used to watching currently. But then again, I'm probably f****** wrong. It's probably going to be like three decades of "Cruel Intentions," one, two and three, the musical. That's going to be what theater is going to be for the general populace because, again, capitalism finds a way to make itself known. And so all of the feelings of excitement about the radical reshiftings that could happen that I have right now because theater has to stop — it can't move — are probably gonna disappear once rich people figure out a way to get to things that they like back again.

I was wondering whether you could pick up a few voices here, people that you found interesting and explain why. Two or three names of radical voices in the industry.

I'm really excited by a young playwright in London that I've been connected with. Her name is Jasmine Lee-Jones. She wrote a play called "Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner" that uses Twitter as one of its main forms and or main dramatic structure structuring forms. And it's a really exhilarating and beautiful play about appropriation and young Black womanhood. The right of women of color to have ownership of violence and violent language. It's one of my favorite new things I've read in awhile. And I'm thinking a lot about a choreographer called Jonathan González. His work deals with bodies on bodies, and how we wrestle power from each other with the smallest gestures.

There have been more prominent calls for more racial equity in multiple creative industries, Broadway included. What actions has the theater community taken and what would you like to see taken before the curtains rise again?

I think that a lot of things that have happened have been superficial and will be ignored. And I feel mainly annoyed that we have to go through more theater right now and the theater of protest. Because the difference between performance art and theater, as Marina Abramović might say, is that in theater, the blood is ketchup, and, in performance art, the blood is real. And I think the same thing is true of protests and in relation to the theater. In theater, the protest is like a performance. It's not that you risk nothing because you get to bow at the end, but in real life, you have to risk something when you protest. And so I wonder how much more risk will come, who's risking what and how they're going to start risking it.

I don't think that a lot of these things that [theater workers concerned about equity] are saying are new. I think these are things that we've been saying for four decades. And the fact that there are artistic directors that older than me in New York who still have their jobs, that are still saying things like, "I'm learning, bear with me, I'm going to take another anti-racist class." It's actually psychotic because if you haven't learned it by the time you have been holding the station for 32 years, I doubt you're going to learn it in a three-day workshop, right? You witnessed Rodney King. You witnessed Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice. You witnessed too many names for me to count on two hands in the span of seven years. I doubt that you are going to change because of George Floyd and just now reading "White Fragility," right? It's not going to happen. So I think that if theater actually wants to show that it's listening to Black and brown voices, that it actually cares about making a change, then Lynn Meadow, Todd Haynes, Jim Nicola, Oskar Eustis, every single white artistic director that has been working in the New York theater upwards of 20 years would say, "You know what? This has been great. I've done my best." But maybe now it's time to have a new voice take the reins and maybe fill those reins with, like Black women and brown women and like, queer people and trans people in stations and positions they've never been in. Maybe some of them that have never, never done the job. Why does the job have to come back in a hierarchical system, right? That's another thing that I think we can disrupt if we actually care about disrupting. And doing actual anti-racist practices. Doing things that are anti-capitalist, and actually investing in a more utopian theatrical space. But we don't have an interest in that. That's what I think could happen if we wanted it to change, we would have people radically giving up positions, radically restructuring spaces, sharing wealth in new ways.

It wasn't difficult for me as a personal human being to give 181 $500 grants to writers who needed it right now. Every major theater in New York could have done that because they all have budgets that they put on hold that they could give not only to their staff — who desperately need it right now, many of whom have been furloughed and will not be paid — but also to artisan communities that they serve. We know a lot of them are actually hoarding the money they have in order to prepare for another season that might not come when they think it's going to come, because it is in New York — and the rest of America, no one's staying inside or wearing a mask, doing any of the things they're supposed to do. So I have a lot of anger about this. And I think it's righteous anger and anger that should be the kind of anger that everyone has because I think that the actions are simple and everyone complicates them in order to do a smoke-and-mirrors theatrical trick of avoiding blame and avoiding any sort of actual risk that will be required in restructuring, reshaping and actually reforming the American theater to look like the people that make up our country.

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