Stage curtains part to reveal a scene straight out of a Hockney pool painting. Here’s the blue-tiled pool, concrete patio, white modernist villa with wood-panelled ceilings and sliding glass doors. On the horizon, the silhouettes of tropical trees and steep mountains. The pictorial stillness is interrupted when a young man, dripping with water and wearing only a speedo, appears on stage. Through the glass, he sees two works of art hanging on a wall inside the villa. He runs to the one on the left: an eerie abstraction of orange squiggles on a lime-green background. He reaches out to touch it, his hands still damp. Another man comes forward, a few decades older. Immediately, the youngest asks: “Is it a Twombly?”
The two men have just met, but their evolving relationship will form the narrative framework of “Dad”: a melodrama, a play by Jeremy O. Harris that premiered in New York in 2019 and is now – after a two-year delay due to the pandemic – at the Almeida Theater in London. Franklin (played by Terique Jarrett) is an up-and-coming artist from a Southern black family whose father came out and left his son with a bunch of daddy issues. Andre (the ever-dapper Claes Bang) is a wealthy collector of unspecified white European descent, who immediately falls in love with Franklin and is more than happy to indulge in a bit of father-son roleplay. On their first MDMA-fueled party, Andre offers to buy all of Franklin’s upcoming exhibit, but the idealistic ingenue says no because the art “becomes worthless once it’s owned.” Instead, he agrees to move in, setting up a studio in André’s beautifully appointed Bel-Air home. (The Hockney vibe is no accident – Harris’ “notes on style” in the script instructs you to Google the painter Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1971 “if you’ve never seen it”.)
Although he doesn’t buy any of Franklin’s works – hand-stitched plush dolls that the artist’s mother, the devout Zora (Sharlene Whyte), calls her “coon babies” – Andre lavishes expensive gifts on him. . He also wields connections to compete for media coverage of Franklin’s show, hosts the afterparty on opening night, and offers him a job running a gallery in Thailand — where, apparently, “Australians on vacation go after artists they’ve never even heard of”. . At first, Franklin can’t believe his luck. But little by little he begins to feel overwhelmed, trapped. Although he didn’t initially seem to notice, or perhaps care, his interactions with Andre are disturbingly racialized – the white man describes his skin “like the sweetest chocolate” and refers to him as “my little Naomi”, because his legs remind him of supermodel Naomi Campbell’s. Their sexual encounters veer into sadomasochism which Franklin doesn’t always want. Jarrett is great at conveying his growing sense of degradation. His gallery owner, Alessia (Jenny Rainsford), is optimistic: “Honey, no, listen, patronage is nothing to be ashamed of. I have confidence […] Its good. It’s the Medicis, the Guggenheims, the Rubells, the Gettys, who are responsible for all the art we love.
During the play’s interval, the AbEx paintings hung in the villa are replaced with canvases by African-American artists Kerry James Marshall and Barkley L. Hendricks. Andre still collects works he thinks are a good investment – it is suggested that Franklin is well on his way to achieving blue chip status himself, with his first show a sold-out success. Alessia is openly cynical about how to achieve this: to market the artist’s “blackness and homosexuality” to appeal to “this current moment”. The art world is an easy target for satire, but that doesn’t make jokes about it any less delightful. (See also: Bang’s role in Ruben Östland’s 2017 film The place.) Yet despite all the laughter, the tone of this piece is far from downright ironic. Rather, as the subtitle tells us, it’s a melodrama: a heightened realm where matters of the heart and soul are handled with utmost sincerity. When Zora moves into the villa, Franklin finds he can no longer suppress his emotions. Years of trauma and pain come to the surface. Theatrical excesses—surreal musical interludes, dramatic spotlights, abstract motion sequences—become ways to express Franklin’s deteriorating mental state.
It appears that “Father” – with chilling quotes – is the title Franklin chose for his exhibition at the gallery. He considers the little dolls, elegantly dressed in small costumes and shoes, as a sort of self-portrait. When they say ‘dad’ they are ‘speaking for themselves’ – addressing an absent father figure: perhaps none of this concerns André.
Later, Franklin embarks on a new series of larger-than-life soft sculptures (designed by artist Tschabalala Self) depicting himself, Zora, and Andre. When they are finally revealed, we see that the figures of himself and his mother are rendered expressively, with screen-printed faces and other details – the doll is wearing pointy red heels – but Andre’s is a featureless white spot. Andre is horrified. “You didn’t give me a face,” he said. “You said you wanted to see the world as I saw it,” Franklin replies. The sculptures are lying on the floor, but he picks up the mother and son dolls and lovingly arranges them to sit side by side. It’s his job, his show – and it’s his.
“Dad”: a melodramawritten by Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Danya Taymor, is at the Almeida Theater in London until April 30, 2022.