Tender Head: An Original Story by Playwright Jeremy O. Harris

By
Photography Campbell Addy
Stylist Gabriella Karefa-Johnson

Published October 4, 2019

Alek [left] wears: Shirt and Dress by Louis Vuitton. Earrings by Annika Inez. Shoes by Bottega Veneta. Jeremy [right] wears : Jacket, Shirt, and Pants by Loewe.  Shoes by Martine Rose.

Tender Head is an original story by Jeremy O. Harris, starring the playwright himself and the supermodel Alex Wek. Harris’s Slave Play is now on Broadway.

———

TENDER HEAD

I sat at her feet, my mother, her thighs against my shoulders and my head upon her knee as she’d transform me.

“You’re tenderheaded, but stay still…we almost done.”

Having a tender head meant I’d never not wince during, but this was the ritual. The washing and wincing, the conditioning and wincing, the combing and wincing, the drying and wincing, the braiding and wincing. In the midst of the wince, eyes squeezing lid against lid and tears forming in the crevices, I would begin to formulate an image of who I’d be when the wincing subsided.

Alek wears: Coat, Jacket, Top, and Skirt by Prada. Earrings by Wkndla. Jeremy wears: Jacket, Sweater, and Pants by Prada. Necklace (worn throughout) Jeremy’s Own.
Alek wears: Dress and Earrings by Balenciaga. Jeremy wears: Sweater and Pants by Comme des Garçons Shirt.

Perhaps with my hair rowed back like corn I’d finally stand with the countenance of a man who worked a field and not the book-ish fey indoor cat I pranced about as most days. Perhaps with hair weaved with the Yaki my mother had strewn over the chair just there I’d find some groove to take back as my own, like Stella on that beach with Taye Diggs. Yet most probably, I would become, my hair in spindly hyroglyphic precision, some new unnamed black fabulation that would stand like a stately prince in the court of Sun Ra.

Jeremy wears: Shirt, Pants, and Shoes by Gucci.  Alek wears: Dress and Hat by Miu Miu. Earrings by Panconesi. Shoes by Lanvin.

My mother would alight with a thrill whenever she saw the new me’s she could craft with my hair, because in some small way they became evidence of the multitudes she too contained. For, I was hers and so was my hair, long and curly as it was…it was hers. She told me often of the first words she spoke when she held me in her arms at 20 years old in a small hospital in rural Virginia.

“Look at that hair! He has so much hair!”

Alek wears: Jacket and Skirt by Kwaidan Editions. Top by MSGM. Jeremy wears: Jacket and Pants by Givenchy Menswear. Sunglasses by Fenty.

Hair, in our household, was the paper upon which the stories of our past, our present, and our future could be written unapologetically. Her hands, the pen that scrawled down the words with nimble agility upon a scalp that held as solidly as a pen. The twists and knots of the braids the ink. The wince and the ache after, the drying of the ink.

“It hurts Mama. It hurts…”

Dress and Tights by Gucci. Shoes by Jil Sander.

Learning to love and live with the ache that lasts for hours, for days forming a migraine you remember most when you lie down to sleep at night is what I remember most from those days sitting at my mothers feet. The first time, I remember screaming out into the night wondering what of the ordeal was worth it? Was the transformation, the potential to posture like a farmer worth the cost of the ache and the wince?

Coat and Dress by Burberry.

“You’re just tender headed baby, the pain will go away, or it won’t but you’ll at least look good. You’ll look damn good.”

Then she’d spray my scalp with oil sheen and rub her fingers over my scalp. She’d bring me to a mirror and ask me to look myself: some new me standing taller, face tighter, eyes red from crying, but smiling, the ache slowly subsiding.

Coat, Dress, and Earrings by Chloé.

This article appears in the fall 2019 50th anniversary issue of Interview magazine. Subscribe here.

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Models: Alek Wek at IMG Models and Jeremy O. Harris.
Hair: Hair by Susy using Sensationnel Hair.
Makeup: Raisa Flowers.
Set Design/Prop Stylist: Michael Younker at Lalaland Artists.
Casting: Establishment Casting.
Production: CLM US.
Photography Assistants: Jared Christiansen and Paul Strouse.
Fashion Assistant: Julio Cesar Delgado.
Manicure: Riwako Kobayashi at Atelier Management.
Set/Prop Assistant: Igeoma Simon.