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Theatre in Review: What to Send Up When It Goes Down (Playwrights Horizons)

Photo: Marc J. Franklin

This is not, I think, a review, at least in the usual sense. Consider it a journal of impressions. Due to sheer happenstance, I may be the last theatre writer in New York to see Aleshea Harris' much-discussed theatrical experiment. (She has subtitled it "A play. A pageant. A ritual. A homegoing celebration." And it is all of these.) In some sense, it is unreviewable -- by me, certainly -- not least because we are told upfront that "this ritual is first and foremost for Black people...We welcome you, but this piece was created and is expressed with Black folks in mind. If you are prepared to honor that through your respectful, conscientious presence, you are welcome to stay."

Before the piece begins, audience members linger in the lobby where the walls have been covered with photos of Black people -- most or all of them quite young -- who have been the victims of police violence. Some of the names are familiar; many more are not. It's a startling, shattering collage, similar in effect to the Say Their Names Project at the Public Theater in the summer of 2020. One is also invited to pick up a black ribbon pin, a symbol of grief for Black lives lost.

Inside the theatre, actors and audience occupy the same space. Everyone forms two circles and shares their names. Then comes a series of requests. The first: "If you've ever heard someone say something racist about Black people firsthand, please step into the center of the circle." The second: "If you feel you've ever witnessed someone being denied something because they are Black, please step forward." Next: "Now, anyone who has ever felt they themselves have been denied something because you are Black, an opportunity to speak, a fair contract, proper medical care, please step forward." Finally: "Has anyone here ever seen someone physically threatened or assaulted and feel that it was because they were Black? If so, step forward." At the performance I attended, the audience complied, with smaller numbers in the affirmative for each successive request.

Other activities follow. We are asked to describe, in one word, how we feel in the moment. We are invited to write down some kind words for Black people; the walls of Yu-Hsuan Chen's set are covered in similar notes. There are breathing exercises and group singing. Each performance is dedicated to a single victim of violence, and we are asked to shout his name once for every year of that person's life. At my performance, it was James Byrd, Jr., killed in 1998 by a trio of white supremacists, who dragged him for three miles behind a pickup track on an asphalt road. According to Wikipedia, "Byrd, who remained conscious for much of his ordeal, was killed about halfway through the dragging when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another 1.5 miles before dumping his torso in front of a black church."

These last words, read after the fact, elicited feelings of horror and empathy that outstripped anything I experienced at What to Send Up When It Goes Down -- not because Harris' piece wasn't written in profound anguish over an ongoing and pervasive evil and not because it isn't inventive. Interestingly, many Black playwrights are, just now, reaching back to the experimental theatre of another era. Both Pass Over (now on Broadway) and The Last of the Love Letters (recently at Atlantic Theater) show the influence of Beckett and Pinter. Harris seems to draw on the ritualistic techniques of Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre or Joseph Chaikin's The Open Theatre. In their tradition, the intent is to create a space for contemplation, healing, and renewal. It's an impulse that reaches back to the theatre's origins as a form of religious observance.

Unlike so much immersive, participative theatre, What to Send Up... is not forced or coercive. The approach is tactful, respectful, and, under the direction of Whitney White, thoroughly rigorous. But, for me at least, the gulf between these exercises -- many of them seemingly taken from theatre games -- and the horrors they represent is simply too great. Given the likely political leanings of anyone attending this production, one wonders if Harris isn't staging an incursion on ground that has already been captured. Or if she is asking the theatre to accomplish a task that exists beyond its reach.

Or maybe not. Harris might argue that even Playwrights Horizons' ticket buyers need to face their racial prejudices, apathies, and penchant for microaggressions. And, around me, some people were obviously profoundly moved. It is certain that for many What to Send Up... provides a safe space for the examination of uncomfortable, even painful feelings. At one point, everyone was invited to close their eyes and yell out their frustrations over anti-Black violence. To my ears, the effect was chilling, like listening to the cries of the damned.

The audience is seated for the second part, a series of savagely comic sketches and monologues in the tradition of Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange. Arguably the funniest features Ugo Chukwu as Miss, a "lily white" employer, tormenting her driver (Beau Thom) and her "made" (Rachel Christopher). Miss asks the driver, "You don't steal, do you?" When he answers in the negative, Miss replies, "Good. Calling you out for stealing would make me look mean and racist and I am neither mean nor racist. What I am is wealthy, white, and liberated." Miss goes on to establish her racial bona fides by ticking off her viewing of Django Unchained, The Help, The Butler, Selma, I Am Not Your Negro, and Black Panther. Also pretty dazzling is Adrianna Mitchell, ranting that she is constantly being dismissed as an angry Black woman: "I guess there was a sale on Mad down at the Mad Store. So I went down and bought me some Mad." And Denise Manning (who also has a lovely singing voice), recounting how, fed up with an office colleague's insensitivity, she removed his mouth from his face. This sequence proceeds furiously, featuring some of Harris' best writing to date. It builds to a staggering pitch, then segues into a mourning ritual that is an indelible reminder of lives destroyed and futures erased. For this, there may be no words.

Whatever one experiences during What to Send Up... it ends on a note of separation. Black audience members are asked to stay in the auditorium; others are sent to the lobby. There, a staff member from the theatre thanks us for attending and reads a statement from Harris asking us to reflect on what we have seen. She poses a question to all: "What is a tangible way you can disrupt the idea responsible for all of these lives needlessly taken?" It needs to be asked, but I regretted the circumstances. There is no way for Harris' piece to end on a note of reconciliation; any optimism would surely seem false. But it would be nice to think we could all depart in common. The sense of division may be the point, a reflection of the world we inhabit. But a show that begins as a healing ceremony ends with everyone farther apart than ever. I don't really know what I think about that. --David Barbour

(6 October 2021)

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