Initially programmed for the Almeida’s Spring Season in 2020, Daddy marks American playwright, Jeremy O.Harris’ first show across the pond.
Like presumably most of the audience members, the celebrity surrounding Jeremy O. Harris attracted me to the show as much as its subject matter.
Daddy follows Franklin, a young, Black and queer artist whose star is on the rise when he gets into a relationship with an older, wealthier white art collector Andre much to his mother Zora’s anguish. With successes such as the polarising Slave Play which made Harris the Most Tony Nominated Writer in history, one can’t help but see his commenting on Franklin’s imminent ascent as an eerie foreshadowing of his own meteoritic rise.
Inspired by Hockney paintings, the play is immediately in dialogue with the world that it critiques. Matt Saunder’s set design is decadent and sumptuous, capturing the beautiful homes of a gated Bel Air community in what seems like an eternal summer. Isabella Byrd’s lighting design adds a hazy, dream like quality as cascading lines of light, reflect off the pool. Indeed, the play seems to be aware of its own interiority, with the set becoming its own exhibition, the characters fixed as sculptures. And in this way, Andre does see Franklin as mouldable, something he can shape.
At the start you think Daddy is clearly about the sub/dom relationship between Franklin and Andre, or as Franklin’s friend Max plainly puts it, ‘who is the top and who is the bottom‘. However, as the play progresses, power oscillates – whilst Franklin needs Andre for financial and perhaps emotional support, Andre’s desire for Franklin seems to also indicate a need. Before their first kiss, Andre refers to him as ‘chocolate’, and simulates this by engulfing him with a kiss. In a dance sequence, Terique Jarrett as Franklin is graceful and light on his feet, playing into the feminine role whilst Claes Bang’s, Andre leads. Jarrett truly shines as Franklin and as a trained dancer, singer and artist himself, this role provided a delightful shimmer of his skills. Franklin often sits between Andre’s legs, a position very familiar in Black families and this direction by Danya Taymor was a notable and jarring choice. Through Franklin’s creation of his dolls, it is clear then that Daddy is not just in reference to his relationship with Andre, but the ghost of his father who is very much prevalent particularly in the second half of the show. When his mother Zora turns up, played by the magnificent Sharleyne White, it is clear why Franklin wants to infantilise himself in this relationship. Isn’t a parents’ love more consistent and enduring than any lover’s could be? Isn’t endurance also what Franklin wants in his art?
Not just serving as a visual and theatrical feat, the swimming pool grounds the play. Yes, water is obviously used for cleansing and we see this purpose when Zora attempts a pseudo baptism on her son, but as the play progresses, it serves as a commentary on Franklin’s character development. Towards the end, Franklin becomes a real-life Narcissus, someone so consumed with his own image that he is prepared to drown it, staring at his reflection in the swimming pool water and becoming physically intimate with his creations.
Why does Franklin become so obsessed with his own image and likeness? Perhaps because he has no good role models to reflect a better image of himself back to him. Both Zora and Andre profess a sort of love for him which often toes the line between possessiveness and co-dependence (both only say I love you whilst giving Franklin pet names). Perhaps it is the act of creation itself, making something in the world that is yours, moulded in your own image.
Daddy‘s prose is overwhelming lyrically and visually, and Harris has a way of capturing the voice of his characters distinctively. Whilst Daddy is a melodrama so leans to the very dramatic, Harris’ words, do its best when not accompanied by theatrics but rather in quieter and still moments. Memorable standouts include Zora speaking about her relationship with Franklin’s father.
The first half of the play is a triumph and its clarity and playfulness (actors splashing audience members with water and a George Michael cover) fizzles out in the second half as the reality of their relationships sink in. The second half does lack momentum and the show itself ends quietly (Zora and Andre do not duel like we were propelled to think) which makes it more unsettling. Throughout the show, I couldn’t help but think about how a white and an older audience might receive this show. If judged from the oddly timed laughs, it seems like most of the show’s incisive observations about how young and ‘diverse’ talent are exploited, went over their heads. It seems that British theatres are only interested in commissioning work that interrogates these topics with some distance. This is where the difficulty fell for me as a Black audience member and artist who has had to live with the realities of navigating this landscape. This is also the criticism that Harris usually faces – are his plays bold and ‘provocative’ or are they exploitative of the Black experience, masquerading as social commentary? I don’t have an answer to that, and I have a sense that this is a very individual and singular reaction.
What I am certain about however is that O.Harris is a talented writer, and it was amazing to see a show by a Black and queer playwright which interrogates what it means to hold both of those identities and make art. I suggest that you get down to the Almeida to make your own decisions!
Daddy runs @ Almeida Theatre until 30th Apr