Erotic Returns: Sleeping with the Ancestors in Contemporary Plays about Sexual Violence


This article analyzes two contemporary plays, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play and Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty, each of which connects twenty-first-century intimacy with sexual violence in the nineteenth-century United States. Both plays feature what I term “erotic returns”—physical and imaginative restorations of sites of historical trauma that hope to animate lost sensations. Erotic returns conjure intimacy with imagined ancestors, which produce in characters and audiences pain, pleasure, or a multivalent combination of the two. Slave Play depicts a Black protagonist, Kaneisha, returning to a cotton plantation like those she visited on childhood field trips, where she now participates in BDSM role-play based on histories of chattel slavery and negotiates her relationship to submissive sexuality. Sovereignty depicts a Cherokee protagonist, Sarah, returning to tribal land from which her family was displaced. There, she engages in a legal battle to confront sexual violence by non-Natives on Native land and, in the process, forms kinships that repairs rifts within Cherokee Nation. In Slave Play and Sovereignty, erotic returns encourage characters to heal with—not from—the past and confront felt dislocations caused by racial and sexual violence. My idea of an erotic return builds on Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” and Soyicca Diggs Colbert, Douglas Jones, Jr., and Shane Vogel’s call for paradigms for race and performance beyond repetition. For Slave Play and Sovereignty’s Black, Indigenous, and white characters, an erotic return repurposes historical traumas as sites of potential pleasure and imagines communities woven together by common scars.


John Hopkins Press

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Theatre Journal



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