by Jeremy O. Harris
Act 1: WORK
Act One opens in the overseer's cottage at the McGregor Plantation, an ante bellum slave plantation in Virginia. The play begins with the song "Work" by Rihanna playing while a slave, Kaneisha, is half-heartedly sweeping. She gets more and more caught up in the music and has just begun to "twerk" when Jim -- the overseer -- walks in holding a whip. Jim is not comfortable when Kaneisha calls him "Massa," but berates her for not cleaning the room better and throws a cantaloupe on the ground and tells Kaneisha to eat it. As Kaneisha eats the cantaloupe, she begins to dance again, which confuses and arouses Jim. The overseer then initiates sex with Kaneisha. When she asks to be called a "nasty, lazy negress," he instead proceeds to move his head lower on her body telling her "why don't I just spell it with my tongue."
The scene then transitions to the boudoir of Alana, the wife of Master McGregor. Overcome by the Virginia heat, Alana calls upon Phillip, her mulatto servant, and asks him to play the fiddle. Phillip begins to play Beethoven's Op. 132 (4th movement) but Alana stops him, calling the newfangled European music boring. She asks him to play the "negro" music she has heard him play down by the river. Phillip plays a tune that is eventually recognizable as "Pony" by Ginuwine which moves Alana to dance seductively, saying she is under the spell of Phillip's "mulatto magic." She then brings out a large, ebony dildo, telling Phillip it belonged to her mother (and her mother before her) and was a gift on her wedding day because her mother knew she would never be satisfied by her husband. Alana uses the dildo to penetrate Phillip, asking him if he likes it -- Phillip replies that he is unsure.
The scene transitions once more to a barn on the McGregor property. Gary, a black slave, is in charge of Dustin, a white indentured servant. Gary taunts Dustin for treating him like he has any authority, saying that he has never seen a white man talk to a black man that way. Still Gary kicks Dustin down and undoes some of the manual labor he has been doing, telling him that he is only worth licking the dust off of his boots. The song “Multi-Love” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra begins to play and the two fight before they engage in sexual intimacy. Gary has Dustin lick Gary's boot clean; this causes Gary to orgasm. Though he then immediately starts crying at which point Dustin calls out for help.
The scene shifts back to the other couples, first showing us Phillip playing music that Alana does not like on his fiddle and then Kaneisha and Jim who are actively engaged in sex. Kaneisha asks again to be called a "negress." Even as Kaneisha nears orgasm, Jim is so upset by what Kaneisha is asking he looses his erection. When Kaneisha asks him why he has stopped, Jim switches to speaking in a British accent and tells Kaneisha that he is not comfortable with the situation and then calls out "Starbucks!" several times which causes Tea and Patrice to come into the room -- dressed in modern clothing -- and Kaneisha to burst into tears.
Act 2: PROCESS
The second act opens on a room in the Main House as the 3 couples and 2 facilitators enter into a session to process the "Fantasy Play" they'd all just engaged in. The facilitators, Patricia and Teá, remind everyone that this is Day Four of "Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy" that they invented which is "a radical couples therapy designed to help black partners reengage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure." When asked for comments, the full group is at first silent. Eventually though Dustin begins by noting that Gary came, which he had not been able to do in a very long time, but Gary counters that Dustin was uncomfortable in making his whiteness hyper-visible. Alana enjoyed the release of the fantasy and asks Phillip if he enjoyed it too, noting that he was able to enjoy it even though he has been struggling with erectile dysfunction. Jim is confused and overwhelmed by the therapy and being asked to play the role of the slave overseer demeaning his real-life wife. He believes the experience is traumatizing and ruining his relationship with Kaneisha. Kaneisha feels frustrated and betrayed that Jim did not give what she asked of him.
After Patricia and Teá read back to the group what they have said, Alana points out that mostly white men are speaking. Dustin insists that he is not white. Dustin and Gary get back into an old argument over Dustin wanting to move into a more gentrified neighborhood. Dustin refuses to label himself as white [in the original production the role was played by an Iranian-American actor but the script is not specific about his ethnicity], and Gary feels that through he erases Gary's identity. Phillip, who has not spoken much, says that he is confused by what Tea and Patrice have been saying.
Patricia and Teá explain the origins of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy in treating anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure. The couple shaped it as their thesis together at Smith and then Yale. They are foregrounding the study both through their experiences in their own relationship and their academic background. They state that anhedonia is caused by racial trauma passed down through history: black partners may be unable to enjoy sex with their white partners because of “Racialized Inhibiting Disorder." Teá previously experienced anhedonia with Patricia, and it was through their "fantasy play" that they have worked on exorcising her racial trauma. Symptoms associated with Racialized Inhibiting Disorder include anxiety, the inability to articulate what they are feeling, and a musical obsession disorder. Phillip says none of the partners he's ever been with have been able to articulate what they were feeling, and relates his struggles with being mixed race. Gary realizes that the song he often hears, “Multi-Love”, was imagined due to "musical obsession disorder." Kaneisha says she felt in control during the fantasy play, but Jim took that away from her by using the safeword; Gary agrees but Phillip does not. It is revealed that Phillip and Alana met because her ex-husband had used an app for people with a fetish (for him it was wanting to see his wife having sex with a black man), and that when Phillip was with her under those pretenses, he felt sexually excited because he was viewed as black by her husband. Alana insists it had nothing to do with race for her, and now that they are in a committed relationship Alana sees him for who he is. Alana breaks down. Gary confronts Dustin, asking why he always says he is not white. Gary questions why they are still together, and he and Dustin almost get into a fight before Patricia and Teá break it up.
Jim starts to read something he wrote on his phone. He does not understand why Kaneisha looks at him with disgust, like he is "a virus," nor does he know what he is supposed to do. Kaneisha realizes that "virus" is the description she has been searching for, referencing the diseases introduced by Europeans which decimated the indigenous peoples of the Americas. She says she knows now that she cannot experience pleasure because she cannot forget her disgust with Jim's race. She confronts Patricia and Teá, saying they are wrong: the problem is within the white partners, not a disorder within the black partners. Kaneisha begins to scream -- trying a scream therapy Patrice and Tea had tried to use earlier in the scene - as “Work” by Rihanna begins playing again.
Act 3: EXORCISE
In the third act, we see Kaneisha packing in a guest room. When Jim enters, Kaneisha says that what she needs isn't better communication, but for Jim to simply listen. Jim is silent as Kaneisha recounts how they met, and then times in her childhood when she had to visit plantations on school field trips. As the only black girl, she felt a need to act proud for her "elders" watching her. She says she fell in love with Jim, a white man, because he was not American. Jim begins to initiate foreplay and the music rises while Kaneisha continues that the relationship went downhill three years ago, when she stopped feeling sexual pleasure because she began to see him as foreign and frightening. She saw Jim's whiteness and power, and that he also has "the virus", because though he is not American, he benefits from being white while being unaware of the privilege that whiteness gives him. She says that Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy and the fantasy play gave her a sense of peace because she feels the elders watching her again; the elders do not care that she is having sex with "a demon" because they did too, but simply want the two of them to know he is a demon. Suddenly, Jim flips into the character Kaneisha had wanted him to play all along: the violent, scary, racist overseer. He calls Kaneisha a "negress" and gags her; dominating and insulting Kaneisha. He stops briefly to make sure she wanted to move forward with the "fantasy play" and when she silently consents, Jim initiates forceful sex. This is not the kind of sex she had been enjoying earlier in the play, this is scary and she quickly has to fight hard to free herself and stop Jim. When she is able to get the gag out of her mouth she screams the safeword and then begins to cry. After a moment though she kisses Jim and says thank you."
Date Aired: May 9, 2022
Team: Jennifer, Ricardo, and Sam
Analysis Technique: Activities
Community Voices: [none]
To see the trailer, click here