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Posts Tagged ‘Slave Play’

Photo: Jeremy O. Harris
When, to his surprise, this playwright earned a windfall, he knew he had to share.

When I was 12, I was a playwright. I’d had a terrific gig as an actor in community theater at age 10 and just fell in love with the whole scene. At 12, I rounded up cousins to perform my play about a talking snowman outdoors for parents. We save things in our family. Not long ago one cousin sent me her tattered, penciled script.

Theater people are often very generous. Most are not celebrities and don’t make good money. The playwright in today’s story did have a successful show on Broadway, but the bulk of his money came from sidelines. When he saw how much it was, he decided to help theater people who were struggling.

As Michael Paulson reports at the New York Times, “Jeremy O. Harris is a playwright, a performer, and a provocateur. And now, he’s a philanthropist.

“The 31-year-old author of Slave Play, which is nominated for 12 Tony Awards, emerged during the pandemic not only as a vocal advocate for the beleaguered theater industry, but also as someone determined to model generosity.

“After years in which he earned very little making theater — he said his total commissions over four years amounted to about $22,000 — this year he made nearly $1 million, primarily from collaborations with the fashion industry and an HBO deal. (Fashion and television pay better than Broadway.)

So in the months since the virus shuttered theaters across America, Harris has:

“He has also used his bully pulpit to champion theater. He sent a letter to President-elect Biden, urging him to revive the Federal Theater Project, and then used an appearance on ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ to push that show’s host to rally support for the idea.

“In a telephone interview, Harris explained why in dire times he believes everyone should be committed to ‘protecting, uplifting and sharing,’ adding: ‘Some might call it philanthropy, but I call it upkeep or maintenance.’ These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How would you describe the kinds of artists or works you’re looking to support?

“I want to make sure that we have a really fertile artistic landscape when we return to the theaters. And I think it’s been pretty evident that I’m really excited about work that’s challenging, that’s scary, that probably wouldn’t get support otherwise. …

“Even before the tumult of this year, you’ve had an interest in highlighting Black theater artists.

“It was so exciting to see myself in Tennessee Williams, in Beckett and Caryl Churchill. But there came a point where I was like, ‘Wait, have Black people never done anything like this?’ And when I discovered that not only had they, but so many had done it to wild acclaim, and yet no one I talked to remembered that acclaim or knew those people, I knew that something had to be done about this cultural amnesia. …

“The $50,000 commissions are above the norm for playwrights. How did you arrive at that amount?

“I wanted to give someone a living wage in New York. I wanted someone to feel excited about spending a year and a half, maybe two, working on one play, and not feeling compelled to work in a coffee shop.”

More at the New York Times, here

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