Is Jeremy O. Harris’s Play for ‘Gossip Girl’ Real? Now It Is.
We hear him before we see him come across the screen: Aaron howls and barks then gallops, on all fours, onto a white, wooden thrust stage, ringed …
We hear him before we see him come across the screen: Aaron howls and barks then gallops, on all fours, onto a white, wooden thrust stage, ringed on three sides by the audience. This enraged man — the son of Aaron the Moor from “Titus Andronicus” — is stark naked and covered in blood.
“What? What? Have I not arrived as you assumed I would? Like a black dog, as the saying is,” he demands, panting and sniffing, shouting into the faces of the seated theatergoers.
He backs away slowly. “You do know who I am, riiight?” Aaron drawls. “The inhuman dog. Unhallowed slave.”
This intense scene from a play-within-a-TV-show commands viewers’ attention in Episode 3 of HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” reboot. And it’s all courtesy of Jeremy O. Harris, the Tony-nominated playwright of “Slave Play.” Shortly after the episode dropped, though, people began to speculate on social media if the play was real or not.
With a tweet, Harris recently confirmed that “The Bloody and Lamentable Tale of Aaron” is, in fact, a real play. He began writing his dream Public Theater play for “Gossip Girl” after chatting with the show’s creator, Joshua Safran (“Smash,” “Soundtrack”).
Upon seeing the play’s opening scene during the taping, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater — who makes a cameo as an audience member in the episode — turned to Harris and asked, “Can we commission this?” Harris said he had a contract the next day.
“I was dreaming this play into existence,” Harris said in an interview. It’s a play he’s been thinking about for seven years, since he started studying “Titus Andronicus” — his favorite Shakespeare play.
“Titus Andronicus,” thought to be Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, tells the bloody tale of the downfall of Titus, a Roman general. Titus returns home from war with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, as a prisoner to the Roman emperor; her lover, Aaron the Moor, is in tow.
Tamora gives birth to a child, fathered by Aaron, who then kills the nurse to keep the child’s race a secret and flees with the baby to save it from the emperor. But Lucius, Titus’s son, captures Aaron and threatens to kill the child. To save his son, Aaron confesses to a plot for revenge. Lucius, who is later proclaimed emperor, orders Aaron be buried up to his chest and left to die. The baby, however, survives.
Harris’s play, then, picks up where Shakespeare left off. We meet Aaron (portrayed by Paul James in the “Gossip Girl” episode), named after his father, in his 20s. He has been raised, ironically, by Lucius Andronicus, now in his 60s. And he’s thirsty for revenge.
“The thing that I think makes Aaron a complex character in literature is because he’s like, ‘I’m evil because I’m Black,’” Harris said of Shakespeare’s play. “And this time, he’s like, ‘No, I’m evil because you guys have socialized me. You have socialized rules around what Black means and what maleness means.’”
When the opportunity to shoot at the Public arose, Harris knew two things: He wanted to do “Aaron.” And he wanted the director to be Machel Ross, who also directed his play “Black Exhibition” at Bushwick Starr in 2019. Jennifer Lynch directed the “Gossip Girl” episode, in which several characters grapple with what to make of the challenging work.
“I loved it. But it’d be committing theatrical seppuku to transfer it,” a theater critic mutters to another at the show’s after party.
The other responds: “It would close in a week, especially without a star. I just wish it wasn’t so confrontational.”
In an interview, Ross said she “knew that the text was evoking a very specific sort of confrontation between audience and performer.”
How could they thrust the “Gossip Girl” cast and universe into this play from the moment it begins, she wondered? Enter: a naked Paul James.
“I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to have to be comfortable. I’m going to have to make other people uncomfortable, and own the stage, and be very physical,’” James said in an interview.
Harris described the play to Safran, the show’s creator and showrunner, as the audience’s worst nightmare: A naked Black man covered in blood, coming up to them and asking them to touch him. It’s a confrontational idea, and one that the “Gossip Girl” character Zoya Lott — a newcomer to the world of glitz and glamour depicted in the series — can identify with.
“Are you kidding me? A provocative play like ‘Aaron’ is exactly what Broadway needs after a year on pause,” Zoya (played by Whitney Peak) fires back at the naysayers. “What it doesn’t is another ‘revisal’ of — of anything. Especially one devised by white people, about white people, starring white people.
“That’s why the theater was invented, right? To challenge audience members to — to think beyond their own narratives. I mean, come on, have you never read Shange? Albee? Fornés?”
About that exchange, Safran said in an interview: “That’s what Zoya is wrestling with in this world with these people. Can I actually speak my mind, or do I have to fit myself into a box and just observe?”
In the show, Harris sweeps into the room, playing himself. “Hey. Who are you?” he asks Zoya. “You seem very much like someone to me. Let’s find a less confrontational space and have a little talk,” he says.
“Zoya is one of the only people that can look at their world and process it and call out things as they are,” Harris said. “And make a little mess along the way as she does that.”
In fact, Harris will be returning as himself to the show in the second half of its first season, in Episode 10, as a fairy godfather of sorts to Zoya. As for the status of the play itself? “I think it’ll be done when it’s done,” Harris said.