Why would a charismatic young playwright, with a critical hit playing to 800 people a night in Midtown, debut a new work, in which he also stars, at a 72-seat theatrical incubator so far off Broadway it’s in Brooklyn? And why would he do so under a pseudonym that sounds like the name of a bot?
The answer isn’t that @GaryXXXFisher — as the author and pseudo-autobiographical main character of “Black Exhibition” are called — is hiding a messy, heartfelt, intensely personal spectacle from too much scrutiny. Or it’s not just that. The main reason is that @GaryXXXFisher is really Jeremy O. Harris, the author of “Slave Play,” and he is savvy enough to understand that his new play isn’t for everyone.
In the same way, he knew that “Slave Play” was. (Its transfer from New York Theater Workshop to Broadway this season was a great and moving surprise.) Though tightly focused on three interracial couples spending a week at a sex therapy retreat, “Slave Play” encompasses the entire scope of interracial America. From a handful of characters, it implies millions.
“Black Exhibition,” which opened on Saturday at the invaluable Bushwick Starr, turns the telescope the other way around. It features five characters who represent different aspects of outlaw sexuality, but narrows down to just one subject: its author. Part notebook, part incantation, part primal therapy, it is so esoteric it sometimes seems as if it were written in a language with just one speaker left.
And language is key here. Harris invokes Ntozake Shange’s term “choreopoem” to describe a collagelike construction that incorporates free verse, choral speaking, dance, tableaux vivants and (in his case, not hers) text message chains about getting gonorrhea in Berlin. The result is by turns caustic, coy, baffling, impish, embarrassing, insightful and, as the pseudonym suggests, frank.
But if Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” celebrates the healing power of community, “Black Exhibition” feels neither healing nor communitarian. Harris plays a figure based on the real Gary Fisher: a gay black writer who died of AIDS in 1994, leaving behind a small but potent body of work. In Gary’s skin, Harris undergoes a kind of sacrificial flaying as the world he wants to be part of also torments him with its gaze.
In truth, that gaze can seem self-inflicted; Harris elects to spend most of the 60-minute work, directed by Machel Ross and beautifully designed by Frank J. Oliva for the tiny Bushwick Starr space, in little more than a jockstrap. (The droll costumes are by Sabrina Bianca Guillaume.) He is just as exposed in his quest for ecstatic spiritual communion.
The four other characters, or perhaps they are merely Harris’s avatars, advise him on issues of art, submission and self-display. The experimental feminist writer Kathy Acker (Ross Days) offers a paean to anal sex as a way to see God (or at least Elaine Stritch). The Japanese poet Yukio Mishima (Miles Greenberg) schools Gary in “necessary fascisms.” And the gay Afro-Futurist Samuel Delany (Dhari Noel) sings the ambivalent praises of Fire Island, where raunch is integrated into the landscape, yet the rich have “gentrified the trees.”
The three writers make some sense as Gary’s spirit guides; he has been reading them while visiting that gay playland. What the fourth is doing in the story is harder to say. Called MandinGO, he is based on Michael L. Johnson, the black athlete sentenced, after a trial later ruled to be “fundamentally unfair,” to 30 years in prison for not disclosing his H.I.V. status to sexual partners. Perhaps MandinGO (AJ Harris) represents the twinned problems Gary is flirting with: the vulnerability of gay black bodies in white spaces, and the vulnerability of all bodies in the path of disease.
If I am uncertain about this, as about so much here, that’s fine with me. I don’t mind having to ponder the recondite (and wittily worded) questions Harris keeps sparking as Gary travels his “dark gay path.” I look to the theater, in part, to show me the lives of my co-humans as they live them beyond my ken. What it means to be a gay black man in the world is not, for instance, an experience I can ever have directly.
But writer’s block is, and that’s another of the play’s subjects, if not in fact its raison d’être. Harris draws a sly connection between — I’ll put this delicately — the openness to sex and the openness to inspiration. On the evidence of “Black Exhibition,” I’d say he’s at least got some good foreplay going.
Tickets Through Dec. 15 at the Bushwick Starr, Brooklyn; thebushwickstarr.org. Running time: 1 hour.