Jeremy O Harris is a much feted American playwright (a Tony for Slave Play) adept at drilling in to the moment:  BLM, fashionable white guilt, showy theatricality and retro-intellectual themes like this play’s deliberate reference to Hockney’s 1960’s  A Bigger Splash. And, the programme assures us,  the cult of the male body in the post-coldwar years and   “the queer gaze in modern American history”.   He specifies an infinity pool on stage, and  a Palm Beach mansion with glass walls and lots of challenging modern art in view. . 

    So here it is, with a beautiful very young black man – Terique Jarrett  – stepping out of the water in Speedos. And soon, for the benefit of an older white man who worships  his “Naomi-Campbell”  legs, stepping equally gracefully out of the Speedos.   The boy from the wrong side of the tracks,  Franklin,  isn’t just a pickup, of course. They speak of art ,because he is an aspiring artist with a show coming. Claes Bang’s Andre, the swooningly keen and apparently English  homeowner, is a collector.  A brief  moment of dignity for the lad  comes when he is sent to look at another room and, rightly, appalled that there is a whole roomful of Basquiats, crassly all together  (I found myself nostalgic for the Young Vic’s far more engaging and intelligent Basquiat link in The Collaboration-   https://theatrecat.com/2022/02/25/the-collaboration-young-vic-se1/)

      Anyway, Franklin is seduced, it seems for his  first time and not with total delight,  by Andre, who enjoins a bit of spanking, a “yes sir” response, and indeed “Yes Daddy” . It’s  all a bit  Harvey Weinstein , since the problem of young  bodies bought by rich old creeps with  flash houses and artistic influence applies to all sexualities.  Add to that the author’s contempt for black Christian tradition, in the comedic use of a three-woman gospel choir and.. well..it would have to be a good and gripping play to score.

  It isn’t. As it’s  is billed as “a Faustian melodrama of the soul” one hopes for a sticky end  for Andre and a bit of a proper plot, but alas as part 1 ends the  gospel choir is led by him in a crazed chorus in the pool , splashing the front rows as he leads them in “I will be your father figure, I will be your teacher preacher”. The mainly white audience claps and whoops along and I get really uncomfortable, because Jarrett   is a good enough actor to convey a lot of distress, puzzlement and anxious ambition. Though the director’s desire for tv-type naturalism does tend to mean that some of the pair’s conversations are borderline inaudible.

   The second half at least gives more scope to an excellent Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother, who disapproves of the whole thing, and then it hauls in the question of missing black fathers (it seems, she says,  that they give up because they see how dark the future is for their sons). She is a bright spot in an otherwise overlong, ill-conceived and pretentious evening, as are the comic poolside moments of Jenny Rainsford as a ghastly galleriste,  a selfie-crazed Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbook).  and Franklin’s best friend Max. I asked a black American friend later about the Broadway fame and applause for Harris’ work and he replied that he hated it ,and that the writer’s main fans were “intellectual wokey whiteys”. A description so layered with eyerolling contempt it took my breath away.

Almeida.co.uk to 30 April

Rating two


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