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JOH HI-RES Headshot.PC Micaiah Carter
Jeremy O. HarrisPhotography Micaiah Carter

Jeremy O. Harris: ‘I want to make theatre that gets under your skin’

As his new play “Daddy” hits London’s Almeida Theatre, the writer talks creative fulfilment, Twitter spats, and the importance of diversifying the theatre

It’s hard to believe that the pandemic has been over two years of our lives: it simultaneously feels like 200 years and no time at all. As the shadow of COVID-19 crept across the world, in London (COVID-free at the time), American playwright Jeremy O. Harris was poised to make his UK debut with Daddy” at the Almeida Theatre. 

Blissfully unaware of the impending apocalypse, we spent an hour gossiping about the play, the AW20 shows that had just taken place in Paris, the primaries for the upcoming US election (Trump was still president), and the yummy mummies in the North London café we were in. As we parted ways, little did we know – or anybody else for that matter – that life as we knew it was set to change forever. Daddy” sadly never made it to opening night, and following multiple bouts of lockdowns and vaccines, we suddenly found ourselves in 2022. 

Good things come to those who wait though, and after two years, Daddy” is finally set to make its premiere this weekend. “It feels like a chance to start again,” Harris shares in the lead-up to opening night. “I struggled a lot with my mental health [during the pandemic] and a lot of it was because I was in a state of arrested development: I was halfway through this process and it just stopped. What has been really great though is that the closer the production has come to fruition, the more I’ve been able to open myself up to the work that I’ve put on the shelf for the last two years.”

The modern melodrama was written in the run-up to Harris’s smash-hit Slave Play – the 12-time Tony-nominated show that launched his career, earning him cameo appearances on Gossip Girl and Emily In Paris, as well as his cinematic writing debut on A24’s viral stripper saga Zola. For fans of his oeuvre, Daddy” seemingly embodies aspects of them all, with race, love, kink, and queerness all rolled into one “explosive and blistering” performance. 

With an all-new cast, feelings are naturally heightened as the days to the premiere slowly count down. “There’s a lot of healthy anxiety and excitement,” the writer shares. “Ye says he doesn’t like the word ‘excited’, he prefers ‘energised’, and I think there’s a lot of healthy energy among this cast.” 

After the extended break, Harris is naturally reflective of his career to date. “It was a really meditative year,” he says. “When the world paused, I decided for my own mental health that I needed to take my own pause. There are people who felt like the pandemic was a moment when they could learn a new hobby or finish a project they hadn’t been able to, but I wanted to take stock of what my last few years have been like and what that means for my future.” Now, he’s ready to start living it. 

Here, we speak to Harris about visibility, criticism, and the importance of post-pandemic theatre.

When did theatre click as something you knew you wanted to do? 

Jeremy O. Harris: When I was 25. It was a combination of things. I was really inspired by Lena Dunham and I remember thinking that Girls felt like something I would have written. I also wrote a play when I was in college and I think that was the beginning of what made me feel like I should take it seriously. People that I really respect read something that I had written and thought it was special, and having the right people tell you you’re special at the right time is enough to change the course of your life. 

What kind of impact has theatre had on your life that you hope it can for others too? 

Jeremy O. Harris: As a working-class child growing up in Virginia, it was my only release and I want to continue to have the ability to be that release for a litany of other kids in the future. That’s a big part of the reason why I work so hard to get young people and specifically Black people to my plays. I feel like we haven’t had the experience of going to the theatre to catch that bug of it being a necessary part of our lives. I want us all to have that experience. 

I don’t want theatre to be this rarefied thing like the opera or ballet where it’s so small that only a certain subset of people go to see it and in order to see it, you have to pay hundreds of dollars every time to sit in a shitty seat. I want it to be an experience that’s not just for posh, wealthy people. 

Are there any differences to this production of Daddy” versus the originally planned version in 2020? 

Jeremy O. Harris: Yes, plenty! Most significantly, our cast has changed and that’s what is so lovely about being a theatre artist, every new cast you invite into a project helps you write a new spell to cast over an audience. I’m really excited about the spell this cast is going to cast on the audiences, although I do feel that the UK missed a chance to see another really wonderful cast do some profound magic in 2020. In the other multiverse, people saw that production and it was great, but I’m really excited about this one too.

“I don’t want theatre to be this rarefied thing where only a certain subset of people go to see it... I want it to be an experience that’s not just for posh, wealthy people” – Jeremy O. Harris

What do you hope people take away from seeing the performance? 

Jeremy O. Harris: I said this after Slave Play, but I think nowadays people will go to the theatre to see something and say, ‘Oh that was lovely’ and then go home and watch a new episode of Love Is Blind and forget they even saw a play because it doesn’t stick with them. I want to make the kind of theatre that you can’t just walk away from. It sticks with you, gets underneath your skin in a really icky way and you can’t let it go. 

How do you hope your visibility in theatre will inspire other POC playwrights? 

Jeremy O. Harris: I think there are a lot of people out there who want to be doing what I’m doing right now, but for reasons out of my control, I’m the one that magazines want to talk to. It’s exciting and fun, but it’s also humbling that I’m that person. I hope that conversations like this one will create more space for people like Antoinette Nwandu and Aleshea Harris who are both amazing. If every Black Brit who reads this takes out their phone and buys a ticket to Black theatre, they will be a much more fulfilled person. If my space inside the worlds of fashion, music, and theatre means that I have to be the spokesperson in order to create more interest and find other brilliant creatives then that’s fine. 

The topics explored through your plays have gathered some critique on platforms like Twitter and TikTok. What kind of impact does that have on you as a creative? 

Jeremy O. Harris: I’m more visible than a lot of other people who are in my industry, so I think the visibility necessitates critique, but I’ve never been afraid or upset about getting critiqued online. There have been things that have been said that have made me upset because I felt misinterpreted. I believe there are some people who wanted to get some of the shine that I had, so they willfully misrepresented things I have said or done in order to spread fake news about me and that was obviously hurtful and annoying. But, for the most part, I think that anybody who gets to a space of visibility necessitates critique. 

All I want to do is be depoliticised, but I recognise that is impossible and there are no depoliticised artists these days. The most important thing for me is to be able to make space from all the noise and meditate on how to make another banger. I want to continue making good plays for myself around topics that I want to write about. Sometimes I worry that I’m getting further away from that idea and that I’m going to be a bum bitch, but then I remind myself that you can’t allow other people’s anxieties into your head and the main thing is to keep working and keep doing my thing. 

Why is it important for people to continue to support theatre as we emerge from the pandemic?  

Jeremy O. Harris: It’s so important to support theatre; if you don’t want to be in a room with other people, then I don’t know how you can be a productive member of your community. It’s why theatres have to be even more diligent to make the invitation to go and see theatre with other people as accessible as possible. In the UK, there’s been a lot of amazing work to make sure it’s accessible on a financial level for people, but there’s still a lot more work to be done and that’s really exciting. I’m hoping with this production we can create models that are more racially accessible, more accessible to the disabled community, and to people who can’t sit in a room with other unmasked people right now. 

What are you most excited about for the future? 

Jeremy O. Harris: I’m most excited about the chance to not limit myself and explore the limitlessness of my imagination as a creative. I really want to continue challenging myself as a fully creative being and a lot of the creativity I’m imagining for myself is with the written word. I’ve enjoyed interviewing a lot of people and I feel like I want to make space to do that a little bit more and see what comes of it… I also want to write a book.

Daddy” will run at London’s Almeida Theatre 30 April, 2022