Jeremy O. Harris is a magnetic force in a room. When we first met, his gregarious personality and distinct fashion sense (if my memory serves me correctly, he was wearing a plaid skirt on this occasion) made him unforgettable. When I had the pleasure of being introduced to his work, I was struck by how his bold and bright self manifested on the page. Once you’ve encountered this person or their work, it will be committed to memory. Jeremy is entering his 2nd year as an MFA Playwriting candidate at the prestigious Yale School of Drama. And even if you haven’t run into Jeremy’s non-fiction in Vice or seen his style praised by the New York Times, you’ll no doubt be seeing his work explode onto stages in the near future, as he is currently under commission by Lincoln Center Theater and Playwrights Horizons. Even so, he confessed to me that, “I sort of hate doing [interviews] because I’ve been told that in real like I’m pretty charming and funny but I feel like my humor doesn’t always translate to a printed interview.” Well readers, I can attest that the man is both charming and funny so please read accordingly.
Jeremy O. Harris for the New York Times
BB: Jeremy! Can you tell us a bit about yourself as a person (and a writer).
JOH: Well my name is Jeremy O. Harris. I’m a Gemini…I don’t know! I like theory a lot, complex things…How complex things look or sound when juxtaposed next to things like pop culture that people might think aren’t as complex but that, in my mind, hold a more direct line to the complexities we get from theory, etc.
BB: You do draw from mainstream/pop culture in your plays — in “Daddy” (for example) there’s an infinity pool, references to Instagram, Celine sunglasses, selfies with iPhones, blow and a Blow Pop — but by no means are your plays shallow. Can you talk to me a little more about that relationship between pop culture and theory and how it plays a role in your work?
JOH: It’s hard to just talk about because in a lot of ways that’s just me. How I process the world on a day-to-day basis. My roommate, Michael Breslin, and I live in this apartment called KWEEN PALACE and our other really good friend Amauta is always over and somehow a conversation about RuPaul’s drag race will spur a conversation about the intersection between queer performativity, Ariana Grande, and string theory. (This sounds fake as I type it but it’s also one thousand percent true.) I think, basically, we’re all just nerds who also happen to see diamonds in cultural trash and we’re constantly using our nerdiness to make sense of why we see diamonds there when everyone else sees trash. We also are probably just figuring out good defenses for our gauche sensibilities.
BB: I also happen to know that you use music as inspiration when writing. You cite Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” in your script. Can you tell us about the songs that inspired “Daddy”?
JOH: I would love to! Nicki was definitely an inspiration for a lot of the first act of the play but the entire play came to me, almost fully formed, while listening to “Father Figure” for the first time. I think I truly just want to be a music video director sometimes because I hear music in a deeply imagistic way. So the first thought I had when hearing it was a black boy crying by a pool and an older white man singing this song to him in this gorgeous long take. Overall, the play is completely infected by the songs I listened to as a child and in LA.
BB: That music video concept of yours sounds stunning. How would you reimagine the “Anaconda” video?
JOH: Well, first, I must say that video is great. It’s her most choreo heavy video and she really has some moments of major cultural shifting imagery–real retina burn moments–BUT I also think that the video for the song could have been really cool if, for example, they built from what I think is one of the strongest sequences: at the very end of the video there’s this weird part where she’s like a chef and she puts a banana halfway in her mouth and then takes it out and cuts it in half…then the video immediately cuts to her crawling to Drake and also in a grotto sort of looking at the camera like “this won’t end well for him” and it culminates in him not being able to handle her and her walking away. I like that sequence a lot because the song is about being a man-eater. She breaks apart this deeply problematic song and in the chorus she sort of does a run down of all the ways he wants to objectify her then essentially alludes to destroying him with her ass. So yeah my video would engage with that part of the narrative in a way.
BB: Can you tell us about your process of writing “Daddy”?
JOH: “Daddy” was the first play I wrote with the sort of confidence of someone who sees them self as a playwright. Before I had only written one full-length play and no one wanted to produce it or was even that interested in me as a writer, but Christopher Shinn and Evan Cabnet were both very amazing mentors and champions who told me that what I was writing was valid and fresh and new. So taking the advice of Chris I applied to the MacDowell Colony and much to my surprise (and a lot of other people’s) I somehow got in. While I was there I was terrified of the idea of writing a thing or even writing this thing that felt like it could be a serious thing because I was at the Colony with people who were REAL artists: Michael Almerayda, Narcissister, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and even Amy Herzog. There was a real imposter syndrome that overtook me and made it impossible for me to do anything but read for a month.
Meanwhile at dinner every night, people would be asking about this play I was working on and what was happening with it and I felt so bad because their excitement for my project was immense but I had written almost nothing. It wasn’t until the last two weeks of my time there that something inside me broke. I saw my friend Mai playing football with his uncle and all these words started falling out of me. I went home and wrote Zora’s “2 dollar panties” monologue. Then I wrote the entire first act as an attempt to “earn” that monologue. Then I went back to NY and stayed on my friend Mitchel Civello’s couch (an extended residency in a way). And after he read it he was like, “This first act is amazing. Everything else is rushed and bad. But we’re putting this up in a month so make it as good as the first act is in 3 weeks because I’m directing the first reading.” And I did. This is a long way of saying that the process of writing the play was quick in a lot of ways but it was only written because I was fueled by this amazing community of friends and collaborators who pushed me to have confidence in myself and this play.
BB: When we first met you said you wanted to be like Kanye West. I asked you what you meant and your answer really struck me. You said that as an artist, Kanye is rigorous — and that was a quality that you valued as an artist. Rigor. Can you talk to me a bit about that?
JOH: Oh god. I feel like this could get me in trouble. I feel like I said that before I had to keep my love of him secret, and to myself. Hahaha. Before he started saying too many outrageous things to fully defend. That being said, I do think Kanye is rigorous and I also think that that’s the quality I see in all of my favorite artists. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m engaging with work or making work that doesn’t have the sweat of labor in every aspect in it. I come from a working class family, a single parent family, and something I feel very strongly about is that I want to earn the labor my mother put into giving me the life I have. My mother, at a time, worked close to 80 hours a week to make sure she could afford to send my sister and I to private schools and keep a roof over our head. The least I can demand of myself is that my work be as rigorous and complex as the labor my mother put into allowing me to do that work.
BB: Are there any other ways that you want to be the Kanye of playwriting?
JOH: I think I’d also like to have the same ability to curate great collaborations that he has. It’s one of the most admirable things about him as a producer and what many of his collaborators talk about when they talk about working on one of his albums. He makes the best rooms. I hope that I can also make the best rooms for the people who are working with me. But also, PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE I “want to be the Kanye of playwriting”. I’ll amend it to say I want to be the “Rihanna of playwriting”.
BB: Haha, ok, I will totally respect that. Would you unpack your love of Rihanna a little for me?
JOH: With Rihanna I think it’s that I just find her unerringly interesting. She seems to follow her own path wherever it takes her. She’s definitely someone who is a part of the pop machine, but I think that she’s a great model of someone who seems to be engaging with the institution and flourishing within it but also completely happy. I so often meet playwrights who are wildly successful and so dissatisfied with everything they do and the entire stock of their life. I just want to be able to have a career in this field and feel happy. I almost don’t know that I can be the Rihanna of Playwriting because I think Caryl Churchill pulled that off first. Or maybe Rihanna is the Caryl Churchill of Pop Music?
BB: Finally, you recently had an article featured in VICE. You talked about the process of writing a play that helped unpack the idea of desire and your attraction to white men. Was “Daddy” the play that you’re referring to in that article?
JOH: No actually. I joke a lot about how my first collection could be called, “The White Dick Plays” because so many of the plays I’ve worked on in the last 15 months have been a way of me unpacking my entanglement with white spaces via embodied white men. But “Daddy” specifically for me is less about the relationship in the center and more about being young, black, queer, and acquired. In a lot of ways my entire life I’ve felt like an acquisition to some white daddy. Whether that daddy is an actual lover, a group of friends, a high school, or the Yale School of Drama they all are sort of the same emotionally to me. But the play where I am directly dealing with the issues raised in that essay for VICE is entitled, WATER SPORTS; or insignificant white boys it’s my memory play and I’m actually workshopping it this summer with New York Theatre Workshop, which is very exciting.