Sex in the Theater: Jeremy O

Harris and Samuel Delany in Conversation


 

Left: Samuel Delany (photo: Michael S. Writz) Right: Jeremy O. Harris (photo: Marc J. Franklin)

 

At three in the afternoon on a Friday in late January, Jeremy O. Harris arranged for an Uber to bring Samuel Delany from his home in Philadelphia to the Golden Theatre in New York City. Chip, as the famed writer of science fiction, memoir, essays, and criticism prefers to be called, arrived in Times Square around seven that evening to watch one of the last performances of Harris’s Slave Play on Broadway. 

Though the two had never met before, Delany has been hugely influential on Harris, and served as the basis for a character in the latter’s 2019 Black Exhibition, at the Bushwick Starr. And Delany was very aware of Harris. The superstar playwright made an indelible mark on the culture, and it was fitting that the two should meet on Broadway, in Times Square, Delany’s former epicenter of activity, which he detailed at length in his landmark Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and The Mad Man. 

After the production, Harris and Delany met backstage. “A lot of famous people have been through here to see this play, but this is everything,” Harris said. The two moved to the Lambs Club, a nearby restaurant that Harris described as “so Broadway that you have to be careful talking about the plays. The person that produced it is probably sitting right behind you.” (Right after saying this, Harris was recognized and enthusiastically greeted by fellow diners.) Over turkey club sandwiches and oysters, Harris and Delany discussed identity, fantasy, kink, and getting turned on in the theater.

HARRIS

Can I ask you about the play? How are you processing it?

DELANY

I was confused in the beginning, but then I realized, Aha! This is therapy. And then, Aha! The therapists are nuts! Then I traveled around having sympathy for all the characters, especially the stupid good-looking guy. He was sweet, I’ve had a lot of those. The character that I identified with most is the one who insists that he’s not white. I used to get that all the time, I mean, the number of times I was told by my friends at Dalton, Well, I would never know that you were black. As if I had asked them.

One of the best things that ever happened to me happened when I was about ten, which was a long time ago. I was born in 1942, so this is 1952, and I’m sitting in Central Park doing my math homework. This kid, he could have been about nineteen or twenty, and I think he was homeless, he walks up to me, and he says to me with his Southern accent, You a n****, ain’t you? I can tell. You ain’t gonna get away with nothin’ with me.

And I looked up at him, I didn’t say anything, and he looked at me and said, That’s all right. You ain’t gonna get away with nothing from me.

And I was so thankful for it. I realized, first of all, he was right. He was being much more honest with me than any of my school friends.

It was also my first exposure to white privilege. There were a lot of white people from the South who felt obliged to walk up and say, You’re black, aren’t you? They thought it was their duty. In case I thought, for a moment, that they didn’t know. This was part of my childhood: people telling me that I was black.

HARRIS

I appreciated the fact of race in the South. That is one of the reasons why I think a play like Slave Play came out of me. Growing up, I was considered special because I looked the way that I looked, and yet I was smarter than all the white kids, and these are the richest white kids. The teachers had to understand that in some way, and so they thought that if I was smarter than any black person, smarter than all the white kids, that must mean I was an alien. You’re an alien kid, and let’s treat you like an alien. We’re going to put you on a pedestal and other you more than you’re already othered through this intellect.

When I came up North, I encountered this notion that my performativity, the way I performed and the way I engaged in the world, made me not black. I was not black and not white but in a different way than in the South. In the South, everyone was like, you’re black and different and therefore you’re even more special, but the blackness was always there. In the North, they pretended that the blackness wasn’t why they saw me as different. It made me hate the North. You guys are more fucked up. The fact of my blackness is always there, and when I meet someone like you, Chip, I’m like, you’re black.

The sense of gender-nonbinary spaces is something you already knew before there was language for that in the public sphere. Do you feel like that was partially because of your race? Because of the way in which your race was understood?

DELANY

Yes, partially, yes.

HARRIS

You have an engrained articulation for queerness, and you wrote it into your fiction better than anyone could write it into theory. I’ve always been so inspired and enthralled by that. The only thing that I have an innate understanding of is my psyche, all learned through osmosis, from having had a therapist and also from existing in a family that refused to acknowledge that different brains work differently. I could look around my family and figure out that my uncle had schizophrenia just by cataloguing the way he processed the world. I thought, It’s interesting that Uncle Chris listens to the radio when he talks to me. That’s the only time that we can make lucid conversation, when a radio is playing static next to him.

DELANY

Did you ever hear of the radio play made out of The Star-Pit? For a decade it was played over WBAI once a year as a Thanksgiving tradition. I do the narration. It was hundreds of years ago.

HARRIS

You do have an actor’s voice.

DELANY

I was a ham. I was a stagehand in the Charles Stanley dance company, and the dancers and all of the stagehands had to perform onstage naked. I got used to performing on the stage naked a long time ago, which is interesting because my partner, Dennis, has never had any stage experience. We have been together around thirty years and we have two entirely different takes on our bodies. He is actually very private. He walks around the house naked with me, but he doesn’t want me shooting pictures of him naked, which I am prone to doing.

However, there are many naked pictures of me around. There is a woman named Laurie Toby Edison who has a book of male nudes called Familiar Men, and there’s a photo of me in there from when I was fifty-five. Dennis and I also posed nude for Mia Wolff for Bread and Wine.

I’m not shy. I have had sex with so many men I literally cannot count. I once estimated it must be about fifty thousand.

HARRIS

I can’t imagine fifty thousand penises entering in and around my orbit.

DELANY

Well, it was because of the theaters in Times Square, where you could go in and have sex with twelve people in twenty-four hours. You made out much better in the theaters than you could at the bars. Then our totally vicious mayor, Rudy Giuliani, closed them all down. Eventually, once we got together, Dennis and I used to go to the theaters and have sex with each other and he was comfortable doing that. One October, we went to the theater and there were chains around the doors. Dennis used to say that Rudy Giuliani ruined our sex lives.

HARRIS

I’m working on a movie about a queer party, so I went to a bunch of queer parties in Berlin, on Fire Island, and in LA this summer. We were at one party in Berlin for thirty-six hours, and a friend of mine, who had spent most of that time continuously having sex in a blacked-out room, swore we were only there for three hours. There is something really interesting about group sex, dark-room sex, where you can lose all relationship to time.

In Slave Play, the sexual encounter between the gay couple had to feel the most queer so it could be revealed as the most mundane later. I mean, they’re into boot licking, and that’s like a Thursday night at the LabOratory in Berlin. That’s not high kink, it’s midlevel. High-level kinks are anything related to large objects in orifices, because it requires training. You can’t go into that as a rookie. And anything with high psychic consequences is high-level kink.

What do you consider high-level kink?

DELANY

Well, I got to the point where I could fit almost anything down my throat. Which is good, because Dennis is hung like a horse. If I had met him when I was much younger, maybe we never would have gotten together.

HARRIS

You had trained.

DELANY

I remember going down to one of the bars down on the waterfront years ago. They used to have something called Wet Night on the second Wednesday of the month. I was drinking so much urine that it began to shoot out of my butt. It was going in one end and coming out the other end, and it was really bizarre. It was quite an amazing experience, but I only did that once. I wrote a few letters about this to my friend Mogg, who is now dead, but the letters served as the basis for parts of my book The Mad Man.

HARRIS

How much urine does one have to drink for that to happen?

DELANY

Well, I was not measuring it. I was sitting in the john, one guy after another came in, and I let them know that they could use me. And it was fun. And, you know what, there was no damage whatsoever. It’s sterile, it’s absolutely sterile.

You have this bag of hydrochloric acid down there, it’s the first step on the immune system. Very few germs get through that. If you get it as far down as your stomach, you’re either fine, or you’ll throw it up. Unfortunately, I sucked so much dick I lost my gag reflex, so after a while I stopped being able to throw up.

HARRIS

In Black Exhibition the character Little Delany says, “I’m an expert oralist.”

DELANY

Well, I was.

HARRIS

I’m glad it was true to you. In a lot of ways, my sexual imaginary was so much more broad than my sexual experience until this summer. This summer I started engaging more frequently, partially because I had writer’s block and I thought it would be helpful to engage in some of the things that I was thinking about. I feel like a lot of the writers I know have the same experience, but you seem to be the opposite. You seem like your sexual experience must outpace your sexual imaginary.

DELANY

For a while it did. Now, it has kind of gone the other way. I’m not nearly as sexually active now, but part of that is just the neighborhood I live in. I used to be in the Gayborhood. Now I’m in the Museum District. I can walk to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes is right over there, and the Rodin Museum, which are all wonderful.

HARRIS

I’ve only had one experience in Philadelphia, but I did have sex there. I used to tour with my friend’s band, Florence and the Machine, and one night after a show we went out to a club, and one of the fans of the band was trying to needle his way into our hang space via having sex with me. All he got was sex with me.

It felt like a not-very-happening gay space. In LA and London and New York, having sex in a bar bathroom is not crazy, but this guy in Philadelphia made it seem like it was the most insane thing we could possibly be doing. Do you feel like that’s true of the environment there? That it’s a little more puritanical in Philly than it is in New York?

DELANY

Now it is, but years ago, when all of the films in New York closed, you could still find theaters to go to in Philly. They’re now all gone. As far as I know, there are no theaters like that anywhere.

It was a really interesting institution, and a very welcoming one for gay people. I met a lot of people and I made a lot of friends at the theaters. Dennis and I used to use the same theater, but we never met there because I would use them during the day and he would use them at night. Once we were together, we loved to go. Dennis loved going to the theater and getting sucked off and I loved going to the theater and sucking him off.

HARRIS

I love that you say “used” the theater. That’s such an interesting verb choice. The theater was a utility, something that was used, not just somewhere to go to, to be.

DELANY

Right, which is to say, people got used to going to the place, sitting in the theater, and masturbating. Some of the guys didn’t mind if you joined them, some of them didn’t want to be bothered, but usually there were enough of each to make it work.

HARRIS

Were there any full-on orgies at the theaters?

DELANY

No, it was just a lot of guys going around sucking people off and masturbating, that was that. There was very little fucking. There was one place called the Variety Photoplays that had a spot behind the balcony called the lounge where every once in a while someone would drop their pants, lean over, and get screwed. A guy named David Wojnarowicz made a book of drawings called Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, and they were very accurate. The roof of the Variety Photoplays used to leak, it would drip down, and in one of Wojnarowicz’s drawings, there’s a bucket there catching water.

HARRIS

It would be amazing if there were more documentation of these queer spaces.

I wanted to ask you how you felt during the first act of the play. One of my goals was to make people feel turned on in the theater again, but also to have them be confused about why they were turned on.

DELANY

I didn’t feel turned on at any point during the play. However, I was very moved by what happened between the characters. In your mind, is the guy who keeps referring to himself as not white, part black?

HARRIS

He’s not part black. I wanted it to be ambiguous. I think he is someone who is non-racialized in a way that a lot of my ex-lovers have been. I have a recent lover who is frequently perceived as white, but I’m from the South, so he doesn’t look white to me. Some people are like, He’s just Jewish. Whatever people need to say to make sense of his race, they say it. I wanted that to be the character Dustin.

DELANY

I found it both interesting and somehow inevitable that you chose to have the heterosexual couple come out as the last people we see onstage.

HARRIS

I often think about just how queer straight people are. I think straightness is way more queer than queerness now. What two straight people do together is insane. We all walk around every day and talk about gender and equality, and then we all go into bedrooms and play power games around our gender and flip power back and forth all the time. What does it mean to be a straight girl that’s like, I am a girl boss, but choke me. That’s really interesting, more interesting than me saying that to a dude. Me saying that to a dude is like, Yes, sure, I’ll choke you I guess. There’s nothing abject about that anymore, but there is something interesting and abject in our current moment around thinking about what fantasy means inside of heterosexuality.

What does it mean to be a man who is trying to be so good in everyday life that he can’t engage with that fantasy of being in power, because he also feels like his fantasy reifies his reality? It’s like Antony and Cleopatra, it’s a tragedy. Straight couples are fucked up.

DELANY

I’ve been thinking that for years.

HARRIS

Can we go back to fantasy? I was a fantasy nerd growing up, and I feel like sci-fi still helps me make sense of our current moment. I think of Slave Play as a speculative fiction. People ask me where I found out about Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy, and I tell them, My brain. It does not exist.

And yet I feel like there’s some reality in our modern space where couples might think about going to something like Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. As a child I went to exposure therapy for my PTSD, and it was really fucked up. It was like a horror film, what they made me go through psychologically to “fix me.” So this is not that far outside of the realm of reality, it’s a mirror to how psychotherapy is a psychedelic endeavor.

DELANY

I always used to feel like with religion, art, and therapy, each was trying to destroy the other two. Sometimes you get one of them, sometimes two, but if you have all three, it is hell. All of them do promise that somehow you’ll have a better life. Up until I was thirty-five, I would have these attacks of dissociation, and sometimes it would manifest as terror, sometimes as panic attacks, sometimes as going away from it all. And then they stopped.

HARRIS

The brain is a fickle muscle. There are things that can wake it up and stretch it out.

 

Waiters hovered nearby, the house lights were on, the restaurant had all but closed. As they gathered their belongings, Harris and Delany continued to discuss film adaptations of Delany’s work, and there was mutual excitement over the idea of a future collaboration. Delany had brought copies of his two most recently published books for Harris, the Dover Thrift Edition of Dark Reflections and The Atheist in the Attic. 

They walked around Times Square for a short while, Delany pointing out sights where restaurants and bars significant to him once stood; the ones that remained were rare. Harris navigated toward the spot where Delany would be picked up to head back to Philadelphia. They continued talking as they approached the car.

 

HARRIS

Can I ask you—you’ve written so much. And you’re still writing. Do you ever feel like you’re done?

DELANY

Well, I write a lot less than I used to. But it’s like Valéry said, a work of art is never finished, it’s abandoned. You just have to know when to abandon it.

 

They thanked each other warmly for the evening and parted ways. 

 

Read our Art of Fiction interview with Samuel Delany in our Summer 2011 issue.

Toniann Fernandez is a writer based in Brooklyn.
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