SLAVE PLAY’s Devin Kawaoka on Bringing an Asian American Perspective
To watch Slave Play is to be broken open. When I saw Slave Play’s Broadway production in the fall of 2019, I staggered out of the theater with my mouth agape and hands trembling. Throughout the show’s provocative three acts, playwright Jeremy O. Harris transported me back to my Virginian hometown. He pressed my ear into its marshy soil until I heard moans coming from the ground on which I lie.
Slave Play begins as a sexually charged recreation of a Virginian plantation (spoilers for the show’s twisty plot follow). But soon the audience discovers that we’ve been watching a different performance than the one we first thought. The four interracial couples we’ve seen actually live in the modern day. Each couple is participating in an experimental study called “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” because their Black partners cannot experience sexual pleasure.
While Slave Play is full of jaw-dropping surprises, the character that wrecked me the most was Dustin. He initially appears as an “indentured servant,” the only non-Black person in a submissive role to his Black partner. This partner, Gary, creates a BDSM fantasy meant to temporarily give himself power. But the scene winds up reinforcing Gary’s loss of power everywhere else in his life.
In the play’s second act, Gary and Dustin’s gay relationship unravels. Gary is frustrated that Dustin won’t fully participate in his sexual fantasy. Dustin is constantly claiming he’s non-white without stating his true racial identity. As with all ugly fights, traumas are pitted against each other: Dustin’s encounters with microaggressions are contrasted with Gary’s experience as a Black man in America.
The afterlives of slavery, and pervasive anti-Blackness of this country, threaten to make Dustin’s narrow discussion of racial ambiguity seem petty and gross. Yet in Dustin, I discovered the closest reflection of myself I’ve ever found in a piece of art.
Dustin is gay, living in Virginia, and close to whiteness; these are my identities that I wrestle with every day. Watching Dustin, I saw a version of myself I both recognized and hated. Like the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, I became intimate with a white-passing person closely resembling me, which triggered a psychological breakdown.
When I saw Dustin, all I could see was his selfishness, cruelty, and lack of listening. But I couldn’t look away. In fact, I couldn’t stop looking. I was drowning in attraction and disgust, ecstasy and humiliation, identification and the breach of identity altogether.
Slave Play has haunted me for the past three years. But the beauty of a theatre show is its ability to find new meaning every night, in every new iteration. When I saw that Slave Play was returning to Broadway, this time with actor Devin Kawaoka playing Dustin, I had another disorienting sense of recognition.
Kawaoka, like me, is gay, biracial, and Asian American. Knowing he would play Dustin made my relationship to the character even more personal. My conversations with Kawaoka made me feel like I was falling into Slave Play all over again.
Auditioning for roles as a biracial actor can be a confusing process. This is a topic I’ve discussed many times with my friend Esmé Ng, a fellow white-Asian performer and playwright. In one conversation with Ng, I mentioned how Tracee Ellis Ross described her role on “Black-ish” as “my first time playing a mixed woman on television.” Ng was quick to point out that any part Ross plays is a mixed woman, sheerly by Ross embodying the character.
Biracial actors can never ignore their race while acting. Play a non-biracial character, and they’ll turn that character into a mixed one. But play a non-biracial POC character, and they risk “diluting” that character, since biracial bodies are perceived racially in countless ways.
Being categorized as a vague “other” was a dilemma Devin Kawaoka faced early on in his acting career.
“It was strange being biracial, and I didn’t even realize or notice it, because I had fooled myself into thinking that I was white passing,” Kawaoka told me. “But then I would go into auditions, and they’re like, ‘he’s not white,’ but they wouldn’t really know what I was… So then I wouldn’t get jobs because I wasn’t something they could recognize.”
In Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris has written Dustin specifically for actors like Kawaoka and Ng: people related to whiteness, but deeply uncertain on how they’re perceived. In Slave Play’s script, Dustin’s character description reads “a white man but the lowest type of white—dingy, an off-white.” Actor James Cusati-Moyer originated the role on Broadway. The fact that he didn’t share his ethnicity online compounded his racial illegibility for some audiences.
Watching Cusati-Moyer in 2019, I saw an incisive representation of my own racial identity. I’m half-white and half-Filipino; I often feel dirty-white and bleached-yellow. Academic Anthony Christian Ocampo has convincingly argued that Filipinos don’t identify fully as Asian or Latinx, instead formulating identity across panethnic coalitions. But as someone half-Filipino, I don’t feel comfortable claiming those panethnic relationships. It feels like I’m a few degrees away from a racial group which itself is a few degrees away from other races. I’m not defined by what I am, but instead by what I am not.
Dustin, like me, struggles to articulate his race beyond non-whiteness. It was Dustin’s complex relationship to race, in the midst of discussions of slavery and anti-Black racism, that attracted Kawaoka to the role.
“I [couldn’t] believe in this play that centers Blackness, that this playwright found the time and energy to write something that rang true in my body,” he said.
Kawaoka’s embodiment of Dustin transforms the character into someone biracial and Japanese-American. After the anti-Asian hate crimes of 2021, there’s been heated discussion on how Asian American identity relates to whiteness and Blackness. Kawaoka believes Slave Play reveals the possibilities and dangers of prioritizing Asian Americans in discussions of race.
“In this racial conversation, there is an erasure or a pushing aside of what it means to be Asian, and also what it means to be biracial,” he said. “It’s hard because [Slave Play], appropriately so, says, ‘When you bring that up, it means you start to center yourself when the purpose of this therapy is to be about Blackness.’ So I think the challenge of Dustin centering himself is great, but there is a conversation to be had there, that I think the play accurately depicts, which is that we’re not a part of the conversation in some ways.”
Devin Kawaoka’s personal and familial history inform his acting in Slave Play. How could Kawaoka’s identities not bleed into a show that demands self-introspection?
Kawaoka’s Japanese family immigrated to America prior to World War II, becoming farmers in a Japanese-American enclave that Kawaoka said “participated in some version of the American dream.” His family was soon forced to live in Japanese internment camps. Kawaoka’s grandfather even became a “no-no boy,” a man deemed “disloyal” by the U.S. government for his responses to an American loyalty questionnaire.
Kawaoka grew up in a majority white suburb, facing repeated microaggressions: kids refusing to pronounce his last name, adults exoticizing his mixed features. One particularly painful memory Kawaoka shared occurred at a work picnic. A white woman came up to Kawaoka making fun of his dad, not realizing Devin was his Asian son. “I would get attacked without them even knowing,” he said. “I would experience racism without [them] knowing that I was the person that they were perpetrating that racism on.”
Kawaoka acknowledged that being biracial did benefit him: growing up, he never considered his life to be in danger. But Kawaoka said he struggled “passing” in order to succeed in a white world. “I always felt like I was hiding myself, and to be honest, erasing myself,” he told me. “It was easier to not be Asian, to be white like everyone else.”
I’ve long struggled with how part-white biracial people, like Kawaoka and myself, should embrace our status as people of color while also investigating our whiteness. For example, when the half-Filipino singer Olivia Rodrigo said she felt excluded in the music industry for being non-white, Black Twitter rolled their eyes. Doesn’t Rodrigo look white, even if she isn’t fully?
I understand some Black peoples’ dismissal of Rodrigo’s struggle. It’s similar to a frustration Gary expresses in Slave Play: Black Americans can’t feel the loss of identity biracial people feel, because they’re always targetted for their Blackness.
Even though Kawaoka understands this dynamic, he still encourages part-white biracial people to claim their status as people of color. Kawaoka says that at a young age, he felt isolated because he couldn’t identify race as the root of his difference from others.
“What I didn’t realize at the time, because I was young, and impressionable, and hungry… was that I always felt safer in Asian spaces and in gay spaces than I did in white spaces or straight spaces,” he said.
It was white/straight spaces that encouraged Kawaoka to erase his racial identity. When an agent recommended Kawaoka change his last name to be less “confusing” to casting directors, he followed their advice. But after his Japanese father passed away, Kawaoka changed his mind.
“I was like, ‘I’m my dad’s son. What am I doing here? What is this? Why am I here?’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Fuck that, Kawaoka all the way, doesn’t matter.’ I sort of gave up on whatever that passing thing was. It also coincided with me being like, ‘I’m gay, too.’”
Audiences walking into Slave Play likely won’t know Kawaoka’s family history. Kawaoka said that many audience members don’t recognize his phenotypically Asian features, and may believe that he is fully white on and off the stage.
“I’m not sure what the audience thinks, but even at the end of the play when I say I’m not white… there’s still usually like six people in the audience who laugh at me,” Kawaoka said.
Kawaoka said when audiences laugh at him, he feels attacked as his character but also as a person. What alleviates this struggle is that other cast members—especially Ato Blankson-Wood, who plays Gary—know who Kawaoka is.
“The only thing that gets me through is that I know [the cast and creative team] understand what I’m talking about, understand my point of view,” he said. “When I look into Ato’s eyes, [he’s] looking at me as a whole person. He’s arguing his point of view, but he knows who I am. What’s so interesting… is that the audience is learning by degrees, that cultural experience is different than what you look like. Or are they learning? I don’t know, because it’s not apparent from their responses.”
In Slave Play, Dustin never explicitly names his own race. I’ve theorized with friends on why Harris made this choice. Is it to allow actors of multiple races and ethnicities to play Dustin? Is it because Dustin’s race isn’t coherent to himself? Kawaoka said he’s considered many backstories for his character. But Kawaoka’s okay with Dustin behaving differently than he would.
“The world that these therapists [in Slave Play] have created of the binary is both incredibly accurate but also sci-fi,” he said. “Because if it were reality, I would say, ‘I’m Japanese-American, bitch.’ But I don’t get that, because the play is pinpointing something very specific. It’s almost as if [the therapists] made a rule that I can’t say what I am, and I can only say I’m white or Black.”
Throughout our discussions, Kawaoka and I circled back to this idea that Slave Play is sci-fi. The therapists in the show are constructing a strange, alternate reality that privileges a Black-white binary while distorting lived experiences. The more Kawaoka and I talked, the more we realized our own world is this sci-fi creation. What’s more scientific and fictional than race?
Casting Devin Kawaoka as Dustin in imbues Slave Play with three discourses around Asian American identity: Asian American bottomhood, Asian American melancholia, and the term “Asian American” itself.
The first discourse, Asian American bottomhood, has long a subject of critique and reclamation in the gay community. Asian men fulfill a particular fantasy in the white imagination: submissive, castrated, small, effeminate. But scholar Nguyen Tan Hoang has noted gay Asian American men might revel in this abjection without losing sight of their social vulnerability.
Kawaoka certainly feels a subversive excitement acting in Slave Play. He said although he’s aware of Asian stereotypes, they don't stop him from embracing all parts of himself on stage. “What if I just don’t try to be what the gay community thinks I am, or what I should be?” he asked. “If I want to be submissive, I can be because that fucking turns me on.”
The second discourse, Asian American melancholia, echoes the jargon of Slave Play’s therapists. David L. Eng and Shinhee Han coined the term in Racial Melancholia, Racial Disassociation, a study applying psycho-analysis to depressed Asian Americans in order to diagnose a racial psychic condition. Their argument? Because Asian Americans can never assimilate into whiteness, they’re always mourning their inadequacy, lost in melancholia.
I’m tempted to endorse this study because it defines the loss animating my identities. But I’m also wary of pathologizing race. Harris’s approach to “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” might provide a model for engagement with these studies; he takes their inquiries seriously while ferociously tearing them apart.
Plus, the terror of slavery in Slave Play may disrupt racial melancholia. If race (or the idea of humanity) was constructed to exclude Blackness, can we use assimilation theory for Black subjects like Gary? Or must we search for a new language?
Which brings us to our final discourse: the term “Asian American” itself. Throughout Slave Play, characters call Dustin white. With Kawaoka in the role, audiences are forced to consider how “white” Asian Americans truly are. It’s a question we’ve also been asking ourselves.
Some Asian Americans (like essayist Jay Caspian King) find the phrase “Asian American” misleading. Created in the 1960s as part of the student Civil Rights movement, the term groups many nationalities and ethnicities together. But can an identity so capacious still hold meaning? Or is “Asian American” a delusion hiding how many of us benefit from white supremacy?
Writer Cathy Park Hong staunchly disagrees with this line of thinking. In Minor Feelings, she writes that Asian Americans betray ourselves when thinking we’re basically white: “When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’ I replace the word ‘white’ with ‘disappear.’ Asians are next in line to disappear… We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.”
When I traveled to New York City to see Devin Kawaoka in Slave Play, it was agonizing to recognize this Asian American debate onstage with no other Asian actors to challenge or support Kawaoka. In fact, solidarity between Dustin and other biracial (or “light brown”) characters in Slave Play is left painfully, if purposefully, under-developed.
But as an audience member, I knew who Kawaoka was. My role in the theater was to listen to and support him and the other Asian Americans in the room, just like Kawaoka’s role in the show is to listen to and support his Black peers.
Throughout our talks, Kawaoka emphasized that he doesn’t want to pull focus from the production’s Black cast and creative team. He said the point of Slave Play is in the title itself: the word “slave” is all over the August Wilson Theatre. The show’s purpose is to force everyone to bear witness to slavery and anti-Blackness in all chapters of American history.
Asian Americans interacting with Slave Play must reckon with this truth. Slave Play set designer Clint Ramos, who is a gay Filipio man, put if perferctly in a 2019 interview: “Regardless of whether you’re an immigrant, when you sign up to be in this country, you are signing up for all of that ugliness that this country did.”
Although Slave Play was written alongside Afro-pessimism, which argues the singularity of Black oppression, Ramos and Kawaoka prove there’s still coalitional politics happening in this production. Panethnic solidarity may not occur between the characters of Slave Play. But it might occur between the cast and audience members after the show.
Kawoaka says Slave Play is exactly the show audiences need right now, because there’s a hunger to name the racial dynamics in America.
“[Slave Play] is really good, it’s really well-written, it’s very provocative, it’s very funny, it’s very sad, it makes you angry, it provokes conversation. It does all the things it needs to do,” he said. “It centers Blackness in a way that is needed and necessary. You can hear in the audience how much they want this type of story on stage, how much they want to be seen, and to have these words said. It really hits a pulse of what Jeremy knew, and what I’m assuming all the other Black cast members knew: the pulse of what it is to be visibly Black in America. How that feels, and how it feels in contradiction to their white or white-passing counterparts.”
The final moment of Slave Play is a violent sex scene between a Black woman and a white man. Kawaoka said that listening off-stage, he’ll often whisper “It’s okay, it’s okay, breathe” to actress Antoinette Crowe-Legacy as she enacts the scene. It’s a fantastic metaphor for what Kawaoka, and other Asian Americans, must do while watching Slave Play. We can be silent, listen, and bear witness to pain. We can de-center ourselves from certain conversations. We can be temporarily off-stage but still know our presence matters.
“I feel honored and happy that as a person of Japanese descent, no matter how passing I may be, that I get to be a part of this, that I’m being included as a part of this story,” Kawaoka told me in our final discussion. “To stand up there as an Asian body and support that story and that message, and offer that level of being seen, it’s just an honor. It’s akin to, after George Floyd, going out to protest. It’s akin to going up to Black Lives Matter organization meeting. It’s all of our problem. Just because [the play] may not be addressing my issues specifically, doesn’t mean that I can’t be there to help support, listen, fight.”
For tickets and more information on Slave Play, visit here.