Aleshea Harris, author of What to Send Up When It Goes Down wrote: “The idea was to hold people accountable, be confrontational, let it be messy, let it be angry, and let it tread as absurdly as the idea that a Black person could be killed on camera unarmed and the person who killed them get away with it. That is an absurd reality. I wanted to mirror that absurdity in the form of the play.”
Woolly Mammoth and The Movement Theatre Company described this piece as “a play-pageant-ritual-homegoing celebration in response to the physical and spiritual deaths of Black people as a result of racialized violence. Meant to disrupt the pervasiveness of anti-blackness and acknowledge the resilience of Black people throughout history, this theatrical work uses parody, song, and movement in a series of vignettes to create a space for catharsis, reflection, cleansing and healing. Boundaries blur as the audience is asked to not only observe the performance, but participate in the ritual as well.”
To borrow from James Baldwin “To be Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” As I reflected on how my experience varied from other reviewers’ who felt “cleansed” by it, I didn’t find the same catharsis.
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The lobby of the Black Box Theatre at Howard University had pictures of numerous victims of racialized violence for everyone to look at before entering. Once inside, we said the name of Atatiana Jefferson 28 times (and I didn’t have a problem with that). I thought some things in this ritual section ran long (it was in the 30-minute range before the hour-long ensemble performance). Examples: “raise your hand if” close to a dozen times and passing a rock around for nearly 50 people to speak in each direction.
Although the audience respected the participatory ritualized prelude before the scripted portion and all audience members stayed for the show’s duration, I think some may have mentally checked out of some poignant later portions of the play. I think some parts of the play connected after leaving the production Thursday night, but the at-length participatory beginning started to lack enthusiasm and facial expressions combined with the fatigue (from people’s days and everyone striving to be “present” in the artistic moment) may have lessened the intensity of responding to other important vignettes. I’m not sure if my own partial disconnect could be the difficulty of conveying the entirety of the Black experience for people who don’t ethnically identify.
The ensemble has eight talented actors and, from the trailer, it looks like the cast has stayed intact since launching the off-Broadway run last year.
One of the most brilliant sequences involved a light-skinned bald bearded Black man (Ugo Chukwu) playing a Caucasian lady “Miss” alongside “Man” (Beau Thom) and “Made” (Rachel Christopher) when the “servants” (“Made” is a play-off of “m-a-i-d”) express thoughts/feelings about “Miss” who thinks she treats “them” well. The multiple sketches for this parody gave a “Mason-Dixon” feel to some 21st Century references in an effort to address the seriousness of the “White Privilege” attitude and how it can adversely affect others.
There are plenty of good ingredients in this artistic dish, but some overpower others. As someone well-versed in pop culture from the African Diaspora, some offerings from the Black American tradition seemed misplaced or unbalanced. Whereas a Step Afrika! styled performance may help interpret some of the storytelling with the purpose of each movement sequence, some of the choreography I recognized from Black Greek Letter Organizations didn’t add value to the scene. The movement of the ensemble at the end of the play is important, but I feel the meaning of the celebratory moment could be lost (i.e.: African movement has a specific intent and purpose, 21st century “twerking” still can have meaning, but an artistic piece like this with a strong undertone shouldn’t have their movements missed in this, the closing of the play, to help bring the healing they’re looking to deliver).
What to Send Up When It Goes Down closes November 10, 2019. Details and tickets
The cast provides a high-energy performances from start-to-finish, however, if any overzealousness overpowers any part of the storytelling, they risk some of the creative message(s) being missed.
However, I wasn’t fond of how the performance ended. The message was cool, but the playwright could have could have allowed the narrator (Kambi Gathesha) to stay pro-Black and still have been all-inclusive.
With the nobility of the mission of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, I feel those who enjoy their productions will want to experience this play.
Inspired by What to Send Up…, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Lil SoSo Productions have created The Love Drive, letters written to Black people which can be dropped off in specific locations. It is open to everyone.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down by Aleshea Harris. Directed by Whitney White. Cast: Alana Raquel Bowers, Nemuna Ceesay, Rachel Christopher, Ugo Chukwu, Kambi Gathesha, Denise Manning, Javon Q. Minter, Beau Thom. Scenic Designer, Yu-Hsuan Chen; Costume Designer, Andy Jean; Lighting Designer, Cha See; Sound Designer, Sinan Refik Zafar; Associate Director, Tyler Thomas. Production Stage Manager, Genevieve Ortiz; Assistant Stage Manager, Anthony Powell. Produced by The Movement Theatre Company . Presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeffrey E. Banks.
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