Jeremy O. Harris scales the heights at Soho House New York
As one of the most important literary voices of his generation, he has the world at his feet. Paul Flynn meets the playwright and Soho House member in Manhattan
Tuesday 23 May 2023 By Paul Flynn Photography by Justin French Creative production by Juliette Clarke Styling by Mobolaji Dawodu Hair by Karen K Makeup by Ayaka Nihei Nails by Leanne Woodley Shot at Soho House New York
In the back of an Uber, hurtling through the final hours of Paris Fashion Week, the esteemed and disruptive playwright Jeremy O. Harris is reflecting back on his first crowning moment. At the 2021 Tony Awards, Harris’s Broadway debut, Slave Play, was nominated for an unprecedented 12 awards. ‘Iconic,’ he notes. Tony Kushner, the previous recipient of the most Tony nominations for a single play for Angels In America, was the first audience member to lead a standing ovation while Slave Play was still in preview at The New York Theatre Workshop. ‘To get that stamp of approval from one of my idols – one of the people who taught me to write the way I write – was very cool.’
Harris is a forthright, infectious, clever communicator, in life as on stage. He is blessed with usefully clashing characteristics: the resourceful wit of those who came from nothing and the robust confidence of an Ivy League education. Harris was born in Martinsville, Virginia, and educated at Yale. He is at the vanguard of capital ‘B’ Black and capital ‘Q’ Queer thought, injecting a new forcefield of energy and enterprise into New York’s wilfully static, conservative theatre industry. Both facets unlock a corner of his artistry – Harris makes theatre uniquely appealing for those who might not automatically consider themselves ‘theatre people’. And, as well as his prodigious storytelling gift, he is enormously good fun.
Fashion loves Harris. He is the only playwright in living memory to have modelled for Gucci and simultaneously held an editorial title at the Warhol-founded Interview magazine. At the 2021 Tonys, he wore custom couture Schiaparelli by Daniel Roseberry. ‘That was supposed to be my f**k-you dress,’ he says with a smile. He didn’t expect to win anything. ‘My chest was exposed. It was a crop-top. I’m wearing a corset. Everything about it was about me being c**ty-c**ty-c**ty-c**ty.’ He repeats the ultimate modern New York superlative with the same rhythmic precision Beyoncé uses on her whip-smart Renaissance album track, ‘Pure/Honey’. ‘It was about: I look so good that it doesn’t matter whether I win or lose, because I’m going to be written about tomorrow anyway.’
Harris’s dates for the evening were his mum, his high-school literature teacher (‘who completely redirected my life’) and his then-10-year-old niece. ‘All the women that inspire me,’ he adds. His niece picked a Schiaparelli piece of her own to wear. ‘How many 10-year-olds get to do that? It was such a nepo baby journey and I loved it.’ ‘Nepo baby’ is media shorthand for the (recently maligned) offspring of famous parents, who get a premature leg-up the fame ladder. ‘Honestly, nepo kids deserve rights too!’ By now, Harris is howling laughing. ‘Like, listen, she didn’t ask to be born into a family with a famous uncle playwright. But it happened.’
This is the way conversations with Jeremy O. Harris track. You start on one subject, then he will take you on a sharp hairpin bend around an unexpected corner. As with most topics, on the nepo babies brouhaha, Harris is well worth listening to. ‘It’s a very complicated thing,’ he says. ‘As someone who is class-conscious, it is horrific that classism has affected our world to the extent that it has. But it’s very easy to hyper-focus on people who are on television or in the media as being the height of all cultural references that capitalism has wrought.’ He’s a thoughtful, circuitous conversationalist. ‘I don’t know that a kid who’s mum was a playwright or a Downtown artist is necessarily the height of our country’s social ills.’ He sighs. ‘The people that I’m more anxious about are the people whose families have wealth that is invisible: whose dads are in finance or banking; who have millions and millions of dollars and then have kids who go on to film school or art school and never have to account for the fact that they don’t have to pay rent.’
Jacket, £2,630, and trousers, £1,270, both Gucci. Boots, Harris’s own. Watch (worn throughout), vintage Rolex. Sunglasses and jewellery (worn throughout), all Harris’s own.
Jacket, £2,450, Gucci. Trousers, approx £998, Nanushka. Shoes and socks, Harris’s own.
As a child in Martinsville, Harris was hyper aware of how the class system operates in reverse. ‘It’s a city where the nicest restaurant is an Applebee’s.’ He intends to write about the demolition of his hometown one day. ‘It was once a significant, thriving furniture town that had some of the best factories in the country. When NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] happened, all the factories closed down. So, in the 1990s, I saw this vibrant working-class community become bereft of any culture or finances. Now we have the highest per capita opioid rates of any city in America. That’s just where I’m from.’
In this regard, why shouldn’t his little niece get to wear Schiaparelli, too? Where there is robust, blunt-talking analysis, there is usually a humorous payoff with Harris. ‘Besides, I’m more interested in the nepo babies who are flops. There are so many people who had wildly famous mums and dads who you never hear from again after they do one movie, because they were not talented. I mean, yes, Zoë Kravitz’s parents are famous. But Zoë is stunning. Being that charismatic is not something you’re born with.’
Our conversational rollercoaster backshifts to the night of the Tonys. In the end, Harris’s assumption of Slave Play winning in none of its 12 nominated categories proved correct. He wasn’t concerned. Slave Play was hardly typical Broadway fair. The story of three interracial couples undergoing ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’ due to the Black partners no longer finding their white partners sexually attractive was hardly set up to travel across Middle America with the mellifluous commercial ease of Moulin Rouge! or Jagged Little Pill.
‘I don’t think you can antagonise the establishment and then say, “Why didn’t they give me an award?”’
‘My play was very much a play that was negging or antagonising the establishment,’ he qualifies. ‘So, I don’t think that you can antagonise the establishment and then say, “Oh, but why didn’t they give me an award?”’ Harris had a blast that night, regardless. ‘I told my mom early on, “We’re not winning and that’s going to be OK.” It’s more punk to walk away with nothing. Suddenly, I feel like Beyoncé and Renaissance. It doesn’t need to win. She’s Beyoncé. It’s way more punk to be Beyoncé and perfect every time and still lose the big award.’
Harris feels like a more natural attendee of the Grammys than the Tonys. His rockstar demeanour is part of what makes him such a breathtaking addition to the storytelling canon. But don’t let that distract you from the punctiliousness of his theatre methodology. ‘I’m a child of the underground and the experimental,’ he says. ‘So, I guess in that way I do say, f**k the orthodoxy. But dramaturgically my plays are pretty classic. I’m a structuralist. I’m constantly dissecting and reimagining Aristotelian practices inside my work. There’s a unity of time and space in Slave Play that I’ve seen very rarely from the type of play that I did. I wanted to make something that felt like a Porsche: it looks really sickening and complex on the outside, but you go on the inside and its very much ready to run fast.’ The engine is purring. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’
Last year, his London debut, a staging of Daddy – the first play he wrote as part of his masters qualification at Yale – wowed audiences that looked more like nightclubbers at an east London queer nightclub than gentrified patrons of the West End, while selling out the Almeida. Daddy untangled the power dynamic of another interracial queer relationship, between Franklin and Andre, with brisk energy, a swimming pool and cunning use of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’ at the end of the first act.