theater review

What to Send Up When It Goes Down Makes Its Audience Do the Work

From What to Send Up When It Goes Down, at BAM. Photo: Donna Ward

You know what I mean by “it,” right?
“It” equals some terrible thing.
Some “bang-bang” thing.
Some wrong-color thing.
The shit that don’t stop.

The first time I saw Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, it was November 2018, and Jemel Roberson had recently been shot. People spoke his name as they wandered around the lobby at ART/New York, which had been redesigned as a shrine to Black people killed by police. The walls were already crowded with pictures, but even more would be needed: Just days later, Emantic Bradford was killed in Alabama. Now What to Send Up is back — the same production directed by Whitney White, remounted at Brooklyn Academy of Music — and you can measure the short distance between the premiere and the revival in more than 500 such deaths. How can Harris’s ceremonial tribute to these lives keep pace? While the company is inside BAM delivering a eulogy, bodies pile up at the doors.

In response to the “shit that don’t stop,” Harris created something that is as much a church service as it is a production — a goad to action, a place for fellowship, a series of spiky parables that teach the congregation. To do so many things at once, the show consists of four discrete sections: the lobby installation, a participatory workshop led by the company, a scripted play with music, and an epilogue. For most of the piece, the audience stays together, shifting from foyer to talking circle to seats. The audience splits for the epilogues, though — the Black theatergoers stay together, while the rest are sent into the lobby to reflect. What to Send Up is at its heart a sermon, so in several places, the performers instruct the audience to define the terms of engagement.

Let me be clear: This ritual is first and foremost for Black people.

Again. We are glad non-Black people are here. 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.

The seven actors lead us into a chalked circle and through the abbreviated elements of a consciousness-raising — for instance, after the company states the rate of Black death at the hands of law enforcement — we’re asked to sum up our emotions in a single word. It’s highly controlled and brisk and includes a homework section, in which the audience writes love letters to (the general category of) Black people. The previous iterations of this exercise are posted all around us on the walls, woven into a sort of rough net, designed by set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen. There are therefore two interiors: the lobby, hung with hard, stained­­-glass-like images of the dead, and the theater, with its softer, vaguer web of care.

After this process, a song takes us into the scripted section. The audience sings too.

Sun come up
Shine on me
Can’t stop it
Feelin’ free …

White directs at an accelerating, breakneck pace, until episodes arrive in the center circle already moving at velocity — bodies pitch themselves in front of us and act and disappear. Whenever a transition or a breath seems necessary, tiny Denise Manning unfurls her huge banner of a voice, and the room pauses to salute it. The mix of vaudevillian scenelets are, at first, tartly comic: Ugo Chukwu plays a racist white woman called Miss who keeps insisting her hands are clean, and Manning laughs about snatching the mouth right off a white man. (The mouth chatters away in her pocket, saying “something about my neck.”)

Once it turns away from the workshop, Harris’s anger atomizes — her critique isn’t only focused on state-sanctioned violence, though we catch glimpses of Javon Q. Minter running from some terror. Harris interleaves complaints about criticism (“You review me and you do not feel the foolishness of it”), the slyness of white friendship (Chukwu admits his white friend took a bite out of him while they were watching a movie), and the threat of constantly being pushed into the “margins,” an area beyond the chalk circle where everything is erased. Eventually, these complaints about interpersonal aggression build into raw grief. Rachel Christopher drags a painful monologue out of herself that still seems red with blood, and the “bang bang” catches Minter, so the others mourn, saying the real names of the real dead.

When I saw What to Send Up in 2018, I called it a choreopoem stretched over a drumhead. Harris is clearly walking in the footsteps of Ntozake Shange, whose blended structures — shows that were equal parts spoken-word poetry and choreographed song — were performed by ensembles that put on and discarded characters as lightly as a woman shrugs on a coat. Harris, like Shange, even has one of her avatars shift into the second person, particularly when talking about corrupted or broken love.

You love it, O, you love it when I bite myself
because that is the kind of Black story you like.

The play’s crisp splendor had grown in my memory until it had overwhelmed the other components of the evening. But this time, I saw that Harris’s finest work is not confined to the choreopoetic section. The bracketing elements (the workshop, the separate-but-not-similar epilogues) operate to keep the audience’s focus split — simultaneously watching the show and the self — even as it’s entertained. Much of What to Send Up is there to make the mechanisms of artistic engagement obvious. Look at how you intersect with this, this piece says. Look at yourself watching.

Other shows tend to present themselves for judgment, careful to make the generalized “audience” the center and beneficiary of the artists’ attention. Harris and White, though, stack their concern as concentrically as an atom, with Black martyrs at the center, the actors at the first orbital, the Black audience one valence further out, and the non-Black audience, spinning and watching from the outermost shell. Since the earlier production, some of the show’s physics have altered slightly but importantly. While the text itself seems the same as it was in 2018, the watchers have changed. In part, it’s simply that more of the audience has now marched or spoken at a listening session or gone through anti-racism training or joined an affinity group. The type of participation that once stirred up a nervous shimmer in the room now feels almost … familiar. Does that steal a little of the show’s power? Only in a way. It does file down one edge, but it sharpens another.

The show does not need to shock you to affect you. Instead, it now seems that the repetition — with its shift from surprise to unsurprise — is the point. Harris and White and the company seem to have stepped back into a production from two and a half years ago without missing a beat, and the future life of the show seems to stretch long into the foreseeable future. (Rituals recur because the devil never stops.) For this production, BAM is co-presenting with Playwrights Horizons and the Movement Theatre Company, and What to Send Up (which is now sold out) is part of the coming fall season at Playwrights. It’s good news that more people will be able to see this deft and elegant ceremony, take part in it, and bear away its lessons. But what’s awful is how confident everyone is about programming it for the autumn. Certainly no one worries about its relevance. Everyone knows it will have gone down again.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through July 11. 

What to Send Up When It Goes Down Makes Viewers Do the Work