“A lot of my friendships quickly become codependent,” the playwright Jeremy O. Harris tells me over cucumber sodas at a Tribeca bar. “Drynuary,” he explains—though he’s allowing himself a celebratory toast when his Off-Broadway hit, Slave Play, closes later in the month after a sold-out, packed-house run. “With me it’s either zero or 100.” The 29-year-old is telling me about the eighteen months he spent hotel-hopping with the indie pop duo Florence and the Machine earlier in his 20s, more professional friend than groupie to the band’s keyboardist, Isabella Summers, but it’s an all-in attitude that extends to his work as well.
The project currently consuming Harris—when he’s not focused on his course work at the Yale School of Drama, where he’s currently finishing up his final semester—is Daddy, his magical realism–inflected Bel Air drama about a young black artist and his older male sugar daddy (played by Alan Cumming; the cast also includes Hari Nef, and the play will be directed by Danya Taymor). When we meet, Daddy, which involves an onstage swimming pool and a full gospel choir, is about to have its first rehearsal. (It opens February at The Pershing Square Signature Center.) It is such an expensive production that Harris was told early on that he needed to cast acelebrity to make it feasible—a mandate that rankled him. But when Cumming sat for a table read, it was “magic,” Harris says. He brought an immense spirit of generosity to the work. Cumming’s character is “the background to someone else’s foreground,” Harris says. But “he never wanted to make the play any more about him.”
First drafted years ago, Daddy was the play that got Harris into Yale. (He credits Summers with getting him to stop talking about the idea and finally sit down and write it.) It also was, he says, initially conceived as a starring vehicle for himself. But as he refined the work, it got away from him: “I think I wrote it past my own abilities. I wrote a role that I would desperately want to get, and I wouldn’t—like writing a song that’s a little too high for yourself."
Harris says he spent a lot of his early career fighting the idea that his work could be easily read as that of a queer, black playwright. A voracious autodidact, he has cosmically wide-ranging interests: In conversation he veers from the Travis Scott concert he attended recently in L.A. (“I was like, how can this be a play?”) to the genius of Ishmael Reed, whose 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo he’s rereading (“I’m that guy, laughing to himself on the subway”), to punk feminist Kathy Acker. His teenage obsession with Acker is the subject of an Off-Broadway project currently in development; he wants to investigate “what it means that she might have had a more colorfully queer lifestyle than I have.”
The impulse to resist any narrow, identity-driven interpretation of his work sometimes led him to alienating places in his work. “My mom would read my plays and not understand what was going on,” he says. “So with Daddy I said, ‘Let me make a play that my mom would actually like.’ That’s something that would be really fun for me.” Fun, one senses, is an imperative for Harris. “That’s the thing I like about Shakespeare,” he tells me. “His language is just like two snap queens chatting at each other. I wanted to have that energy in every tête-à-tête.”