A Black man and a Black woman caught mid-jump in the air. They are surrounded by falling and suspended pieces of paper and upside-down wineglasses. Another Black woman stands in profile on the right.
What to Send Up When It Comes Down at Congo Square Theatre Credit: John R. Boehm

Early in Congo Square’s powerful hybrid theatrical event—a part healing ritual, part sensitivity session, part exuberant dance theater freak-out, and part explosive agitprop political satire written by Aleshea Harris, directed by Ericka Ratcliff, and performed by a sharp ensemble of nimble actors—one of the characters breaks the fourth wall and pointedly tells “non-Black” audience members, like me, that we are welcome to watch the show, but it has not been written for us. And then for the next hour or so, Harris presents us with scene after scene exposing the violence—mental and physical—perpetuated on African Americans in our racist system. Some of the scenes are raw and realistic, others tempered with a kind of bare-knuckled comedy.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down
Through 5/1: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM. Through 4/16, performances are at GRAY Chicago, 2204 W. Carroll; then 4/21-5/7, Rebuild Foundation Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island, congosquaretheatre.org, $35.

In one repeating scene, one character (Ronald L. Conner) warns another (Anthony Irons) that the way he acts when he walks through a white neighborhood is provocative, and likely to attract unwanted attention (aka police violence). When we see the so-called provocative walk, it is laughably tame. But not tame enough, Conner argues, to keep him safe from the fear and paranoia of his white neighbors. The laughter in the audience confirms the truth.

As a white critic—doubly removed from the emotional core of the material, by my race and my profession as observer/reporter—I have to admit that I have no idea if the scenes in this show successfully hit the hearts and minds of the African Americans in the audience. I can only say that parts of the show, dedicated to the memory of Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley-Jones (a seven-year-old victim of police violence), moved me deeply. Other parts made me laugh out loud (I am a fan of sharp, clear-eyed satire.) But, judging by the current hysteria over the idea that critical race theory (aka our actual history) is being taught at school, I can imagine my more emotionally fragile fellow “non-Black” people might not feel comfortable in this show.

But that doesn’t matter. It was not written for us. Then again, as Harris makes abundantly clear, it is in a way about us, but not in a way we frequently want to see—or acknowledge. Some of the more trenchant scenes in the show reveal uncomfortable parallels between the attitudes of old-school White racists and those of white people who consider themselves more enlightened, but who in our own ways, consciously or not, play a role in (or at least benefit from) a racist system. And for that reason I found the show bracing, enlightening, and well worth experiencing. (Even though it was not written for me.)