“Almost everyone I’ve met tells me it is their first time in a theater post-pandemic,” Mr. Harris said. “I want to do it in community.”
On a recent overcast Tuesday afternoon, a small crowd formed outside of the Village East by Angelika on 12th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. The gaggle of strangers had been invited on Twitter by Jeremy O. Harris, the “Slave Play” playwright and man about town, to watch the film “Zola.”
The day before, Mr. Harris, who wrote the screenplay, posted a tweet that he would be attending the 3:10 p.m. show, beckoning his followers to join him at the theater.
Well if you’re in NYC Tuesday come w me, I’m going to the 3:10 PM showing of @ZolaMovie at the Village East by Angelika with some friends and I got @A24 to go in on some tickets with me!
I have 45 tix for ppl who can’t afford. Roll thru to watch w me b4 I’m off to Paris! #zola https://t.co/jYX4ozli1e pic.twitter.com/1LwPItsXkA— MOST TONY NOMINATED ONEHIT WONDER Jeremy O. Harris (@jeremyoharris) July 13, 2021
Around 2:30, fans began to arrive, but Mr. Harris, still an avenue away at Ruby’s Cafe, sat with friends, including Sophie Anne Caruso, who plays Lydia in the Broadway version of “Beetlejuice.” Mr. Harris, dressed in a red jacket and matching pants from Bode, dotted with kitschy patches (one read “Ozarks,”), and a black bonnet (a homage to the comedian, Monique) ate his last truffle fry and whisked his Gucci bag into the chaos of Second Avenue, ready to meet and greet.
Mr. Harris thinks it is imperative to see “Zola” in a movie theater, with a community, like you would a play. This wasn’t the first time he has invited his fans on social media to join him for a viewing. He has done so in Baldwin Hills, Calif., and Los Angeles. He also rented out the movie theater in Danville, Va., his hometown, so that anyone who wanted to see the movie, could.
“Almost everyone I’ve met tells me it is their first time in a theater post-pandemic,” Mr. Harris said. “You only get to go to the theaters and see the first movie you worked on once, that’s such a rare thing and it’s something I don’t want to do alone. I want to do it in community.”
As Mr. Harris approached the corner near the Angelika, a man who was wearing a black Prada hat and holding a bag from the Strand bookstore waved at him. Mr. Harris waved back. “Have you seen ‘Zola’?” He asked him. “What’s your name? Do you want to see it?”
After declaring his admiration for Mr. Harris, the man promised to run home, change and meet him at the theater. “It’s not like I have a job,” the man said as he hurried away.
“I’ll pay him later,” Mr. Harris said, with a laugh.
Chelsea Diane, 24, arrived holding a small, silver Telfar bag. Ms. Diane had seen Mr. Harris’s post on Twitter and responded immediately. She said she was surprised he replied. Ms. Diane remembered reading the Twitter thread that inspired “Zola” back in 2015, when a stripper named A’ziah Wells (a.k.a. Zola) shared her surreal, dark and twisty road-trip-gone-wrong to Florida.
The “Zola” showing would be Ms. Diane’s first time in a movie theater since the pandemic. “I watch movies at home but it’s not the same, I am ready for this experience.” She was accompanied by Jeremy Feight, an actor wearing a Dodgers baseball cap and a thick silver chain that read “hype” in graffiti lettering.
“I’m a huge fan of Jeremy’s work. I was aware of his work while he was at Yale, it’s been an awesome time watching him grow,” Mr. Feight said. “I also like how he is always saying the things that no one wants to say through his work.”
At 3:05, with five minutes to spare, Hansel Huang, 29, the man who had run home to change clothes, made it back.
Mr. Harris stood under the movie theater awning making sure he didn’t miss any stragglers. As he turned, Alex Arthur, 30, yelled, “Jeremy!”
Mr. Harris turned and yelled “Hi!”
“Do you want to see ‘Zola'?’” he said. “Yes!” she said.
“This is New York, this is what happens when you walk around,” said Ms. Arthur, a strawberry blonde in John Lennon-esque sunglasses that hung on for dear life to the lower part of her nose.
Mr. Harris entered the theater, was handed a bag of popcorn and found his seat.
When Kaya Trefz, 19, saw him enter the theater, she gasped. Ms. Trefz had traveled from Philadelphia to visit her best friend in college and saw Mr. Harris’s tweet. She had already had an encounter with him on Twitter. She told him that she was reading “Daddy,” a play he had not yet published.
“I woke up this morning and I saw his tweet at 8 a.m.,” Ms. Trefz said, her face slowly blushing. “I really love Jeremy O. Harris, I’m a huge fan and he is one of my favorite playwrights. I’m so excited.”
The movie started with the one-liner lifted from the Twitter thread in 2015 that inspired the story. The lights dimmed, and audience chuckles tumbled forth. The crowd laughed often, mostly at scenes and bit of dialogue that underscored the absurdity of the tale.
Slouching low in his cushioned seat, Mr. Harris compacted his 6-foot-5-inch frame, laughing with the crowd as if he too were watching “Zola” for the first time. When the credits rolled, he headed to the front of the room for an impromptu Q. and A.
“I feel like Ellen DeGeneres!” he said, as he took photos and signed Ms. Trefz’s unpublished copy of his play “Daddy.” “Don’t stop illegally downloading plays and keep writing.”
The theater emptied, and Mr. Harris was off to the airport, headed to Paris. Much like “Zola,” the afternoon started with a Twitter thread and an invitation from a compelling stranger. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to start an adventure.