Well, if you are even casually acquainted with the concept of injustice, you wrestle against defensiveness and pay attention. Because even though the actors tell you that the rituals of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” are primarily for black audience members, people of any color can — yes, I think, must — relate to the anguish flowing through this intense and edifying experience.
Aleshea Harris’s performance piece, presided over by an accomplished and impassioned cast of eight, plunges all of its patrons into a river of outrage. America in 2019 remains a den of inequity, insofar as insults to African American hearts and bodies are concerned. In “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” the violence perpetrated against black people by police is the jumping-off point for an exercise that starts in a mournful cataloguing of those insults, passes through stages of anger — and ends, for some spectators, in tears.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre has brought the production by New York’s Movement Theatre to Washington and, in a smart and embracing gesture, arranged bookings for it outside its own building downtown, at prices as low as $5. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts was its first stop over the weekend; the show travels Thursday to Howard University; and then to THEARC in Anacostia, before settling in for a run at Woolly Mammoth.
This is a moment in which playwrights of color are shedding the curtain of metaphor and opening stages to plainer talk about America’s racial failures. Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” a new sensation on Broadway, pokes fun at the pieties of white liberals who seek to absolve themselves from accusations of racial cluelessness; “Soft Power” by David Henry Hwang, which has its official opening this week at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, explores the branding of never-American-enough with which some Asian Americans say they must contend. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview,” which just ended a run at Woolly, white audiences are challenged even more directly by its author, Jackie Sibblies Drury, who asks that they leave their seats, sit on the stage and confront head-on the cultural divisions that racism has fostered and sustained.
The least white playgoers — who remain an overwhelming majority on most nights in the nation’s mainstream theaters — can do is come and hear them out, these dramatists seem to be saying. Theater has long been receptive to the voices of marginalized artists and groups, on the fringes certainly, and sometimes, even on its bigger stages. In “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” Harris tweaks this open-arms tradition by having an actor inform ticket holders at the door that “We are glad non-black people are here. We welcome you, but this piece was created and is expressed with black folk in mind. If you are prepared to honor that through your respectful, conscientious presence, you are welcome to stay.”
The experience you wade into turns out to be meaningful, regardless of your skin color. The first portion is participatory: the audience forms a circle and you are guided through several gentle bonding activities. The eight actors join us. They are Denise Manning, Javon Q. Minter, Beau Thom, Alana Raquel Bowers, Nemuna Ceesay, Rachel Christopher, Ugo Chukwu and Kambi Gathesha. Under Whitney White’s intuitively moving direction, they ask us then to take seats around the space for a performance of barbed skits tallying the daily dignity violations of surviving in white America.
The audience on my evening at Duke Ellington was equally divided between black and non-black playgoers; you could feel everyone tense up a bit, as the grievances outlined in the storytelling sank in. (The polished actors perform “What to Send Up” in street clothes, adding in some a cappella singing and employing a few basic props.) The show culminates in a scene that memorializes the worst of the violations racism continues to engender, especially for young black men.
I saw wet cheeks around the room on black faces, brown faces, white faces. Tragedy conjured on a stage with fire and grace can transfix anyone, regardless of what your life has been like before coming through the door.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down, by Aleshea Harris. Directed by Whitney White. Set, Yu-Hsuan Chen; costumes, Andy Jean; lighting, Cha See; sound, Sinan Refik Zafar. About 1 hour and 50 minutes. Tickets: $5-$40. Thursday through Sunday at Howard University; Oct. 24-27 at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE; Oct. 30-Nov. 10 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.