It was no ordinary Thursday for playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose genre-bending Slave Play received a whopping 12 Tony nominations, including one for best play. Harris’s star has risen dramatically in recent years, but his Tonys sweep—the most earned by a play in history—represents a new milestone for the playwright.
On Friday, Vogue spoke to Harris about how he’s celebrating, what he sees as theater patrons’ responsibility to artists, and the dream production he’d see once theaters open back up.
First off, where are you based right now?
I’m in Naples, Italy. I was in Europe for my play, and I just never came back to America. I haven’t been in America since January. It was a mix of visa luck and finding someone to take over my apartment in New York; I was like, “Great, I’m going to stay out here and write.”
How are you feeling on this momentous day?
I’m still feeling quite overwhelmed [laughs]. Everything feels so wild right now that I think I could probably walk off of my balcony and still land because it feels like it must be a dream. It’s also so bizarre, right? I’m not in America because there’s a global pandemic, and nobody can even go to the theater right now. All of this is happening, and it feels like I’m in some other universe. “You have the most Tony Award nominations of all time during a global pandemic?” None of those words feel like they should be in the same sentence.
Is it strange to be celebrated for groundbreaking achievement in theater when theaters are shut down around the world?
It’s two things. One, it feels amazing that the theater community is saying, “This is a moment in our history we want to remember.” I grew up looking at the records of who got what in what year, and those are the things that matter when you’re a young artist who’s also an awards geek: “How can I be the youngest lighting designer to win?” or whatever it is. We want people to be able to look this year up in the history books and say, “Slave Play came out. What else happened that year? Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Amy Cooper. We want people to have those conversations around this play. Also, we want them to think about the other Black plays that are happening in this moment.
Does all this Tony recognition change anything about the way you approach your work as an artist and creator?
It makes me feel more committed to the responsibility I feel to my community. People are also celebrating the way in which Slave Play was such a responsible production, and thought about the people that were inside of the play, as well as the people who were coming to the theater, in ways we haven’t seen publicly as much. We have this responsibility to take care of people who love the theater and people who make the theater, and I hope I can take this moment to remind the people in power that theater artists really need their help and support right now. Obviously, the people who hold power in our country don’t see what we view as a necessity; the people who put billions of dollars into the economy don’t see the needs of people who need to pay their light bill this month. I think I’m becoming more committed to reminding people that part of loving theater is loving the people who make it and supporting them. I think we’re all figuring out how to do that because theater is a community-based project.
I know we’re living through a strange time for celebration, but are you finding ways to experience joy around commemorating these nominations?
For me, celebration looks like taking an hour to make two TikToks last night [laughs]. I had given myself a TikTok break because I was sort of addicted to it during quarantine, and then I celebrated by going through all my messages. I’ve been getting calls every five minutes, from, like, literally someone I met in the study at Yale, calling me out of the blue: “Jeremy, we met once, we exchanged numbers. Congratulations!” I’m chatting with people from high school I haven’t spoken to in years. A lot of people are really amped, but I think the people who really know me know how insane this is. I’m celebrating myself by celebrating with them. I also want to take the time to celebrate everyone in my cast and crew; I want everyone on our team, even the people who weren’t nominated, to know that the only way a play gets 12 nominations is by not having any weak links. We got a dozen. We killed it. That’s a full set!
On a personal note, I’ve been fascinated by your quarantine mixtapes. How did those come about?
I was literally sitting alone in the apartment in London, and I was so afraid of getting coronavirus. I was like, I’m in a foreign country, I don’t know how doctors work here, I don’t want to get on a plane. I was wildly agoraphobic for four months, and in that agoraphobia, I started obsessively watching all these videos online and screen-recording. It started because Boris Johnson and Trump were doing these really insane press conferences around COVID, and I started out with videos of them and then some TikTok I found that felt relevant. It just became a daily practice, almost like a meditation. I think it was a way to be conscious of what I was consuming throughout my day.
Last question: If the world opened up tomorrow and you could go see any show, what would you see?
This is really hard. Like, shows that just closed down, or any show in history?
It would probably be some mega-mix of, like, “Jeremy’s favorite songs from Six, the musical…[and] Larry Owens in Jeremy’s favorite song from A Strange Loop.” It would be Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, the Lileana Blain-Cruz production—some scenes from that. Oh, and Ralph Lemon! I would rewatch the moment where April Mathis screams in Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room, as the finale. And the whole thing takes place just for me at the Park Avenue Armory.