It’s His Party, and He’ll Cry if He Wants To

“Slave Play” received a record number of nominations, though took home none. Still, Jeremy O. Harris found reasons to celebrate.,

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Upstairs, removed from the bouncing party celebrating his Tony-nominated drama, “Slave Play,” the playwright Jeremy O. Harris cried — out of happiness for his friends who won awards but also frustration with himself for believing he would too.

Mr. Harris’s buzzy, polarizing Broadway debut, in which an imaginary sex therapy retreat for interracial couples is used to examine the legacy of slavery in America, set a Tonys record for nominations — 12, including best play — but didn’t take home any prizes. (The last time a Black playwright won for best play was 1987. This year it went to “The Inheritance,” written by Matthew Lopez, the first Latino writer to win the award.)

Mr. Harris, 32, who developed his play while attending the Yale School of Drama, has secured his place as a shape-shifting cultural voice, or as one partygoer said: “the coolest guy in New York.” He attended Sundance for the premiere of the film “Zola,” which he co-wrote; released a capsule collection; signed a deal with HBO; modeled for Gucci; made a cameo on “Gossip Girl”; smoked a cigarette on the steps of the Met Gala; is set to appear on the next season of “Emily in Paris”; and will bring “Slave Play” back to Broadway in November.

Sipping Casamigos tequila, dressed in Zegna and Cartier, Mr. Harris held tightly to the hand of his 11-year-old niece, who joined him at the Tonys. He had never expected to win, but for a minute, he imagined it

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Mr. Harris’s niece, Kyra, accompanied him throughout the night.Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

“I decided to take the wall down for a second when they were saying the nominees,” he said. “And I think, in that one moment, I felt really excited. And I felt all the emotions of it, and then it didn’t happen,” he said, as tears broke through his sentences.

“I know for a person like me, to hope that the systems that you agitate will affirm you, is a lost cause,” he continued. “If I’m hitting a nerve that people don’t like to be hit, there’s no reason for them to be like, ‘Now come, I’m going to give you a prize for that.'”

Mr. Harris spent the day leading up to the awards show with his mom, niece and high school drama teacher. He wrote a speech, took a picture of it, then burned the paper, afraid putting anything down would be bad luck. In it, he thanked everyone who had helped him — let him sleep on couches, invited him to parties and brought him to dinner.

“That award would have been some sort of evidence and recognition of everyone that sat in those audiences — that the work was not just real, but worthy,” he said. “And not that it is any less worthy now, because it truly is.”

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Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
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Adrienne Warren, who took home the award for best leading actress in a musical.Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
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Robb Nanus, the executive director of Broadway Advocacy Coalition.Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

Downstairs, a crowd still came out late on a Sunday night to NeueHouse, a plant-filled co-working space and private club on a quiet street in the East 20s. Dressed in leopard prints, tuxedos, sequins and ball gowns, guests submitted Covid-19 test results and vaccination cards for entry, then went mostly maskless. Pizza trucks waited outside and the D.J.s Oscar Nn and Mazurbate played Latin New Wave.

Unlike previous years, post-Tonys festivities were limited — New York City said no to the request for an official after-party on the street — and there were only a few official events.

The space was filled with Broadway performers including Adrienne Warren, who won a Tony for her role in “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical”; Dyllon Burnside, who will soon appear in “Thoughts of a Colored Man”; and Chalia La Tour, who was nominated for a Tony for her role in “Slave Play.” There was also Antwaun Sargent, a director of Gagosian Gallery, the photographer Tyler Mitchell and DeRay Mckesson, an activist.

The party was co-hosted with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which was honored for a special Tony Award for its efforts to challenge racism through storytelling and theater. Attendees were invited to write down their biggest dream for change in the industry. In the back, an artist translated the messages into a drawing on a dry erase board.

Ms. Warren, who co-founded the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, said she hopes the industry will start re-examining and reimagining itself.

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Dyllon Burnside and Josh WyattCredit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times.
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Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
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DeRay Mckesson, left.Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

“The truth is, I don’t know where Broadway is going to go. I can only have these dreams of where I hope it will go,” she said. “We are at a true turning point, and it is up to this industry to decide where they want to turn.”

Mr. Mckesson said he is interested in ways to get more people into the theater, and opportunities to make it easier for New Yorkers to see plays.

“What would it look like to proactively invite communities to come that otherwise might not?” he asked. “Are we doing everything we can to invite people into these spaces that have historically excluded them?”

Hari Nef, the actress and model, said she would also like to see more stories that push audiences.

“I would like to see confrontation and pleasure and little payoff. It runs the risk of feeling a little orderly if we’re not careful,” Ms. Nef said. “There would be maybe a little violence. It would be upsetting.”

The party was scheduled to end at 1 a.m., but Mr. Harris led the group further downtown to the lounge Socialista. For him, the night was still young.

“I’m going to party until 5 a.m. I have two hotel rooms, one at the Edition and one at the Bowery. I’m going to choose which one feels the best to me,” he said. “And I might not sleep at all tonight.”

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