While adjusting to the spotlight that comes with a much-talked-about Broadway debut — he has recently been a guest on “Morning Joe” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” — he has also been using a pseudonym to develop an even more experimental work that is about to begin performances at a small Brooklyn theater, the Bushwick Starr.
The new work, “Black Exhibition,” is described in the script as an attempt “to look at a queer black male psyche through the lens of its literary influences.”
The five figures in the show are all based on real people whose sexual lives form a core part of their public personas. Harris, who danced in high school and acted throughout graduate school, will perform as Gary Fisher, who wrote about his experiences as a black gay man in the posthumously published “Gary in Your Pocket”; the other characters include writers Kathy Acker, Samuel R. Delany and Yukio Mishima, as well as Michael L. Johnson, whose imprisonment for failing to disclose his HIV status to sexual partners prompted a debate over HIV criminalization.
The new work, directed by Machel Ross, is called “Black Exhibition,” because, Harris said, it asks: “What does it mean to be a black body on exhibition?” He is categorizing the new work as a “choreopoem,” after Ntozake Shange’s seminal “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which is now being revived at the Public Theater. Harris said that meeting Shange at a gathering had inspired him to use the dramatic form she pioneered.
Emboldened in part by the surprise album drops of pop artists like Beyoncé, he has chosen to keep his authorship a secret until now. The Bushwick Starr, which is planning to present the hourlong show from Nov. 6 to Nov. 23, has until now been promoting it as having been written by @GaryXXXFisher, a pseudonym created by Harris.
The show is being financially supported in part by Makeready, a film studio with which Harris has been collaborating on other projects.
Harris and the Bushwick Starr’s co-founders, Noel Allain and Sue Kessler, said they had embraced the idea of pseudonymous authorship in the hope that new audiences would have a chance to get tickets before they were snapped up. The space is small — a second-floor walk-up with just 72 seats — and the initial run is just three weeks, although it could be extended.
Harris, 30, agreed to do “Black Exhibition” at the Bushwick Starr long before he knew “Slave Play” would go to Broadway, and he said this venture has become more meaningful now. “The goal of my playwriting work was to be in these kinds of spaces — it was a no-brainer to want to do a show there, but it became even more imperative while my play was uptown, to show younger theatermakers that commercial theater doesn’t necessarily have to be the goal.”
“I was excited to be doing something that didn’t have the pressure of my name attached to it, and didn’t have the pressure of a huge financial obligation,” Harris added. “I could just play in a sandbox with my friends and jam.”
The collaboration with Bushwick Starr, a 12-year-old company with a $1 million annual budget, has been in the works for several years; Allain saw Harris’s work at a festival at the New Ohio Theater and reached out. Once Allain read an early draft of “Slave Play,” he had a sense that Harris might already have outgrown the Bushwick Starr.
“I emailed him right away and said, ‘Are you sure you want to make something at the Starr, because in a couple of years you’re going to be famous,’” Allain recalled. “His answer was very important: He said that no matter what happens, he wanted to be able to show his artistry in different ways, and working at the Starr was an opportunity to showcase his voice in a way he couldn’t do at a larger institution.”
Harris, who has also written another new play, “A Boy’s Company Presents: ‘Tell Me If I’m Hurting You,’” which will be staged next spring at Playwrights Horizons, said he had worked on “Black Exhibition” on Fire Island and in Berlin earlier this year, and Ross, the director, said those settings had helped shape the play’s aesthetic.
“The idea is building a world that feels like an intersection of industrial Berlin and the natural landscape of Fire Island,” she said. “People should come in with as open a mind as they can and prepare for a really visually exciting landscape.”
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