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PRINT December 2019

Jeremy O. Harris

Jeremy O. Harris, Water Sports; or Insignificant White Boys, 2019. Performance view, BOFFO, Fire Island Pines, Brookhaven, NY, June 22, 2019. Jeremy O. Harris and Alex Fialho. Photo: An Pham.

LATE ONE MORNING this summer on Fire Island, I crawled out of a shared bed in a forsaken Airbnb and toward a breathtaking beach house owned by a wealthy Austrian. The dwelling had humungous windows overlooking the bay and was populated with antelope masks and Hanuman statues and a collection of beautiful, sensitive-seeming young men who greeted me warmly. Still half-asleep, I assessed that I had entered a queer fairy tale.

Jeremy O. Harris, Water Sports; or Insignificant White Boys, 2019. Performance view, BOFFO, Fire Island Pines, Brookhaven, NY, June 22, 2019. Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: Matthew Leifheit.

I was there to witness a one-day revival of Water Sports; or Insignificant White Boys (2015), the first script written by Jeremy O. Harris, our fading decade’s most exciting new playwright. Water Sports is an autofictional reverie, and this incarnation, produced by BOFFO, starred Harris as himself alongside porous stand-ins for James Baldwin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and several of Harris’s white ex-lovers. The play has been described by online commenters as “tough,” “uncomfortable,” and “full of rage,” but on that enchanted morning it was none of those things for me, an insignificant white boy lapping up each drop of ritual intensity, feasting on the mandatory role play of audience-sub worshipping this flagrant dom—never mind that in the story he’s the one who gets peed on—who had invited me to follow his troupe through and around this magic house, to share in a bit of memory and a bit of fantasy. Some may have been affronted by the aggressive depiction of interracial mating rituals or, perhaps, by the denigration of really existing “insignificant others” not around to defend themselves. But instead of feeling trolled, I felt stroked. What a special thing indeed to be rendered insignificant—to be transformed, for a fleeting moment, into a disposable lover orbiting a great artist, to become astral marginalia, mere space junk in someone else’s cosmic ascent. And then how wonderful, after leaving the makeshift theater, to reawaken and reclaim all the powers and perquisites granted to white men, who never really view themselves as “insignificant” but are notably preoccupied by the belief that they are protagonists, a belief so violently held that on the rare occasions it comes under threat there may be no other recourse for unlucky bystanders than to RUN/HIDE/FIGHT.

Jeremy O. Harris, Water Sports; or Insignificant White Boys, 2019. Performance view, BOFFO, Fire Island Pines, Brookhaven, NY, June 22, 2019. Alexander Paris and Sal Ad. Photo: An Pham.

As an insignificant white boy, I reacted to Harris’s Slave Play (2019), which had its Broadway debut in September, with feelings that were at once idiosyncratic and irrelevant. For the New Yorker, the play is “the prickliest pear.” For me, it’s a candy apple. Instead of crushing its audience with heavy, overblown allegory, Slave Play seduced me with its staggering mimesis, its characters seemingly grafted onto the stage from my everyday life. At times, its realism is unsettling: The rhetorical shrapnel that shreds the couples in Slave Play reminds me of fights I’ve had in my own relationships, of hurtful things I’ve said, of things that can never be unsaid. Other moments trigger the joy of recognition: The academic cosplay of the lesbian therapists, their high-camp cultural-studies patois—those are lyrics to a 2019 banger for sure, as important to our contemporary soundtrack as any anthem from Rihanna.

Enlisting the alchemy of theater, Harris transmutes cultural studies into pop, helping to bring to mainstream attention a straightforward truth about American life in the twenty-teens: that everything, at some significant level, is about race and gender; that all politics are sexual politics; that all play is race play. But instead of sounding pat or sanctimonious, Harris makes his affirmations sing, convertingdifficult material” into a hot ticket. It’s this superpower, no doubt, that HBO was after when it recruited him as a consultant for its 2019 queer narco-romance Euphoria. More than simply a playwright, Harris is an influencer at a time when the actual nuts and bolts of influencing are complex, still emerging, and less stale than the “big-play-as-unnerving-think-piece” genre that Harris, along with a few peers, is generously upgrading.

Jeremy O. Harris, Water Sports; or Insignificant White Boys, 2019. Performance view, BOFFO, Fire Island Pines, Brookhaven, NY, June 22, 2019. Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: An Pham.

Harris is so attuned it can be eerie. I think of the morning-after clang of glass bottles during a scene in Daddy (2019), when his characters clean up what’s left from a long night of partying by the pool, their discarded clothes still wet and dirty on the pavement—a scene so real to me but never before served to me. Harris offers it like a Proustian madeleine, stirring up a spiral of California dreams. But not everyone wants to be aroused in this way: Harris’s fidelity to the sensory and intellectual texture of contemporary life, his knack for playing back the tape, is not universally appreciated and may be especially unwelcome to audiences looking for escape. Harris is neither here to inflate the details nor to burn down the house (even if some wish that he would).

There are some artists who fundamentally transform the way you look at the world, but for me Harris does precisely the opposite: His work changes nothing about the way I see the world. Instead, his plays confirm, with uncanny precision, my very particular worldview. He performs the inverse of Brechtian defamiliarization, making things you’ve never actually experienced—like interracial master-slave role play—appear deeply familiar. And I have to admit, it’s fucking amazing to feel, for once, like the target audience.

Jeremy O. Harris, Water Sports; or Insignificant White Boys, 2019. Performance view, BOFFO, Fire Island Pines, Brookhaven, NY, June 22, 2019. Ken Barnett, Avon Haughton, Alex Fialho, and Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: Matthew Leifheit.

Then again, who cares how his plays make me, of all people, feel? I know nothing about theater. And yet, it is perhaps precisely because I know nothing about theater and am nonetheless hooked that I have the confidence to predict Harris is going to become astonishingly famous—one of the most famous people in the country, his name a virtual byword for fame.

What a special thing indeed to be rendered insignificant—to be transformed, for a fleeting moment, into a disposable lover orbiting a great artist, to become astral marginalia, mere space junk in someone else’s cosmic ascent.

In 1963, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.” Hardwick was an acute observer of her own time, but today we have Twitter, where anyone can make a point, and maybe even a difference, if no longer a living. The great difficulty in our yawning and scattered media hellscape is that of making an impact, so we should thank Harris every day for taking the time to compose ten thousand Instagram posts, for sheathing himself in Gucci, for flaunting the personal text messages he gets from Rihanna on Late Night with Seth Meyers, for flying anywhere at any time to do editorial shoots for absolutely any magazine, for prompting the New York Times to devote four articles in as many months to a play written by a black gay man in his twenties. Because that’s the work, too. It’s part of why he is center stage, it’s why he deserves his many accolades, and it’s why he is unquestionably destined, as some in the industry have joked, to sign the first billion-dollar Netflix deal.

Christopher Glazek is a writer living in New York.