This is perhaps the first time I have been compelled to begin a review by stating clearly that I am a non-American, white woman. Of course, I believe that my positionality always informs how I receive and respond to art; how I move through the world more generally, but in writing about Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, it is an essential confrontation.
This piece was quite overtly, defiantly, refreshingly not written for me. Harris is clear on this. I am welcome—and felt welcome—but, long after W.E.B. DuBois sent out the call for art written about, by, and for Black people, The Movement Theatre Company are laying claim to that right. They do not apologize for it (nor should they) and that explicit assertion highlights just how rare it is for theater—anything—to be created without an assumed white audience in mind (consciously or not).
Not long ago, I got into a political conversation with the cashier at Trader Joe’s (as one does—a Black man if that matters—I suspect it does). We talked about how perhaps, for all its ugliness, the current climate is forcing people in the United States to recognize a sore that has been festering all along; a boil that, if lanced, might eventually heal. I thought then of Antonin Artaud and his conception of theater as being like a restorative plague, and I thought of him again, more strongly, at What to Send Up When It Goes Down. Actually, first I thought of Augusto Boal and his forum theater, and then Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy, and Amiri Baraka. What to Send Up is not derivative, but it is a worthy inheritor of a couple of different strands of socially-critical theater. This is theater that sets out to do something: be that heal, expose, purge, condemn, motivate, or all of the above.
Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed introduced among other things the idea of the “spect-actor”: an audience that actively participates in a theatrical exploration of their reality in order to envisage and enact social change themselves, replacing the impotent representation of conventional theater. This play does not go quite this far, but there is nonetheless a Boalian aspect to the opening and closing sections of the piece, which are described as a “ritual.”
The audience, having first taken in the portraits of victims of racially-motivated police violence adorning the warmly-lit lobby and perhaps watched the extensive playlist of YouTube videos dedicated to comedic explorations of racial identity and racist fear, is ushered into the bare black box theater to stand in a circle with the performers and engage in communal exercises reflecting on their experience of racism in America.
This then transitions into the performance proper: a rapidly paced, often eviscerating series of scenes that almost overlap as one takes over from the next, returning again, sometimes as a clear continuation, sometimes as repetition with difference. These scenes begin with “Fixing Miss: a play within a play” featuring Made (Rachel Christopher)—yes, spelt “M-A-D-E”, Man (Beau Thom), and jittery white Miss (Ugo Chukwu). The characters narrate their own actions: Man begs to be allowed to continue playing reductive stereotypes in Miss’s “favorite Negro dialect” so as not to be sucked into the margins; Made, seething with unadulterated rage, sharpens knives, loads bullets, and polishes machetes, while verbally announcing each as domestic tasks; Miss “non-racistly assert[s her]self” while compulsively repeating “my hands are clean.” The absurdist piece (Ionesco also came to mind) powerfully sets the stage for an almost unrelenting expression of both the obvious pain, and the real, deep, and righteous anger crystallized by Made.
The other intersecting scenes borrow less from Theater of the Absurd, narrating initially realistic, occasionally deceptively mundane, experiences of racism. Repeatedly, however, those scenarios captivatingly slip into the poetic or the fantastical. One memorable image comes from the woman (identified as 9 in the program, Denise Manning) who relates to her friend how when a white co-worker said he didn’t “see color,” she took his mouth and put it in her purse, where it continues to yabber on, looking like a fish, flopping around.
In other scenes, a woman (3, Alana Raquel Bowers) evokes the many microagressions of daily and work life from “you and you”—the bare pronouns working beautifully to evoke the exhausting and constant assault of diminishing words and gestures. The combination is dark, unrelenting, and—for me—often highly confronting (one “you” is the “you” who reviews her and does not feel “the foolishness of it;” the play also name checks the list of cultural products through which white audiences comfortably consume Black narratives). But it also has a warm and energized humanity.
Unbelievably, there are touches of sharp comedy. Songs written by Harris (led by Manning) provide spiritual relief. The anger and grief building throughout the performances culminates in a rhythmic dance, accompanied with chants and singing that feels triumphant, if not quite fully cathartic—catharsis is not, I think, the intention. We then return to forum theater mode, although the white audience are this time asked to leave for a separate continuation of the “ritual” (ours was less of a ritual than a polite final message).
What to Send Up is not a devised work, but often feels like one. It carries that slightly unfinished quality common to many devised performances. Harris is the sole writer, but it seems to invite adaptation by other groups, possibly due to the didactism that informs the framing ritual (which, depending on your perspective, is not necessarily a shortcoming.) I balk a little whenever a performance makes the rather inflated claim to “ritual,” and What to Send Up cannot totally escape the self-consciousness of the well-intentioned device. The activities are burdened too by their resemblance (for me at least) to theater school bonding exercises; often rewarding, moving, but also hampered by something close to infantalization and my own creeping anxiety as it comes my turn to participate.
By contrast, the more conventionally theatrical central scenes display moments of superb writing and are performed with ensemble-driven polish by the committed cast. It is a credit too to both the performers and director, Whitney White, that her directorial hand is barely visible. The resemblance to devised work stems also from the sense that the scenes naturally emerge from the performers’ own lived experiences and emotions.
If anything, What to Send Up proves the power of theater over ritual. More than any literal participation, it is the performers’ engaged, energized, and heartfelt embodiment of Harris’s words and intertwining narrative that draws you—heartbreakingly—into what it is to be Black in America.