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Black Exhibition Depicts the True Price of Exposing Oneself

Using a pseudonym, Slave Play author Jeremy O. Harris wrote and stars in a new show in Bushwick.

Jeremy O. Harris wrote and stars in Black Exhibition.
(© Maria Baranova)

The official description of Black Exhibition at the Bushwick Starr is enticing in its vagueness. It reads, "@GaryXXXFisher through a mining of transgressive texts both found and written hopes to awaken his audience to the true price of exposing oneself." And we think, Oooooh, is he going to get naked? Is he going to read to us? And who exactly is @GaryXXXFisher?

It turns out that @GaryXXXFisher is the alias of playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose Slave Play has become the must-see drama of the Broadway season. "I could only hear about 20 percent of it," an elderly tourist from New Mexico recently told me after seeing the show, "but I know it was brilliant." Such unequivocal acclaim has been fortified by the adoration of a theatrical press that presents Harris as an enfant terrible, a fashionista who pulls no punches, who holds the curtain for Rihanna when she's running late, and texts her during the performance of his own show.

A well-crafted public persona has been the hallmark of the successful gay playwright since Oscar Wilde sashayed through American customs with nothing to declare but his genius. Harris is no different in that regard. But one would have to be obtuse to discount the hyper-exhibitionism of the social media age, when anyone with an account can dispense wit 24/7 (even though most of us settle for dispensing something that only rhymes with wit). Harris himself is a Twitter addict, and I suspect that the name of his character (Harris plays @GaryXXXFisher) is a nod to that.

Miles Greenberg, Dhari Noel, Ross Days, and A.J. Harris surround Jeremy O. Harris in Black Exhibition.
(© Maria Baranova)

I also suspect such unrelenting exposure is bad for a young artist (Harris is 30 and just graduated from Yale School of Drama). It may be the source of our character's problem: "I came to Fire Island to write," @GaryXXXFisher tells us no fewer than 20 times, "and all I did was f*ck and cry." He tells us this while clad only in a jockstrap and surrounded by friends, who are based on real people, but who might represent aspects of our playwright's psyche.

There's Lil Delaney (Dhari Noel and his mischievous smile) sitting on the dock of the dick, wasting time. MandinGO (a broodingly handsome A.J. Harris) recites the endless prayer of Grindr: "Sup? Looking? Into?" Yung Kathy (Ross Days, fierce and in your face) seems to judge them from the perspective of a jaded lesbian (she's based on author Kathy Acker). And then there's the late-arriving Meesh (the psychotically charismatic Miles Greenberg), a Japanese BDSM master based on nationalist author and failed insurrectionist Yukio Mishima. "FASCISM!" he barks ecstatically as he cracks his whip in what we're told is a Berlin sex dungeon.

Miles Greenberg plays Meesh, and Jeremy O. Harris plays @GaryXXXFisher in Black Exhibition.
(© Maria Baranova)

That's one of the more printable moments in this no-holds-barred depiction of gay sex. The homosexual and debauched of the audience nod in recognition of graphic descriptions of precoital hygiene, Fire Island rituals, and the nirvana of a perfect poppers hit, when one sees the face of God and realizes she looks an awful lot like Elaine Stritch.

Black Exhibition isn't so much a choreopoem (a term Harris has adopted in tribute to Ntozake Shange) as it is a poetic brunch confession. @GaryXXXFisher and friends kiki about hookups and STIs while chowing down on a decadent meal (which itself may be an expression of a feeder fetish). This hedonism is the philosophy of the gay bourgeoisie, a class rich enough to engage in regular sexual tourism (Kathy lists the destinations: Mykonos, Ibiza, Rio…). And if you're not rich, you can find a patron to sponsor your journey. It's a bit like the theater: Welcome to the Black Party, brought to you by Bank of America.

Ross Days, A.J. Harris, Miles Greenberg, Dhari Noel, and Jeremy O. Harris appear in Black Exhibition.
(© Maria Baranova)

Director Machel Ross stages a visually sumptuous production without the benefit of major underwriting. Frank J. Oliva's scenic design is an interconnected web of Fire Island boardwalks, made extra tacky by the stalactites and stalagmites of Cheyenne Sykes's multicolored LED lighting. It's the perfect synthesis of natural and synthetic, conveying the essence of gay land. Sabrina Bianca Guillaume achieves a similarly potent blend of butch and femme in her costumes (I loved Meesh's boots). Christopher Darbassie creates a stimulating soundscape, whether it is the ambient noises of the meat rack, or the amplified voice of our playwright.

The truth is that Harris has a particularly intriguing voice, and his writer's block is more interesting than a lot of writers' exquisitely polished masterpieces. He has a distinct perspective, a keen sense of what makes that perspective both comic and tragic, and (crucially) a willingness to say exactly what he means. But as Harris lashed the audience with salacious revelations and catalogue of bodily fluids, like an overeager dom wielding a cat-o'-nine-tails, I began to feel something I didn't expect: boredom.

The problem with exhibitionism is that eventually, you run out of things to exhibit — you realize too late that the thing that kept people intrigued was what they couldn't see, but that you made them imagine.