Aleshea Harris’s 2018 performance piece, What to Send Up When It Goes Down, had its local premiere this past spring with Congo Square Theatre Company in a production that played both in West Town (at GRAY Chicago) and the south side (Rebuild Foundation Stony Island Arts Bank). It’s back now in a short residency with Lookingglass Theatre, which means that this show, which is written explicitly for Black audiences, is onstage in the heart of the Gold Coast’s historically white and wealthy populace.
So though this piece—which uses a variety of theatrical narrative techniques and rituals to excavate the pain of Black communities devastated by police violence—is not created for white audiences, we are welcome to attend. And we should.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down
Through 10/16: Wed-Fri 7 PM, Sat 2 and 7 PM, Sun 2 PM, Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $40
Codirected by Congo Square artistic director Ericka Ratcliff and ensemble member Daniel Bryant, and featuring an indelible and hypnotic seven-member ensemble, the show opens with a group exercise (though that’s really far too clinical a word for what happens) where the audience, directed by Alexandria Moorman, stands in a circle listening to and sharing our names, our experiences with racism, our reactions to the effects of white supremacy on Black people and communities. Then, through a series of scenes—sometimes satirical, sometimes sorrowful, and often an interweaving of both—the strategies of survival and resistance that Black people must learn to negotiate the toxicity of white supremacy come through clearly. (A gospel-inflected song led by Jos N. Banks rocks the rafters of the theater, and reminds us of the role of faith and music as part of the historical resistance of Black Americans to racism.)
In one scene, a young woman (Chanell Bell) is criticized by a friend for the way she walks, and told that it’s too provocative, too likely to attract unwanted attention in white neighborhoods. Yet to our eyes, there’s absolutely nothing unusual about it.
But that’s quite obviously Harris’s point: all Black people are judged and pinned down by assumptions made by white people that can never be overcome, no matter who they are. Last week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, where Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan declared that Vice President Kamala Harris is “for some reason, an off-putting person,” perfectly illustrates that there aren’t just double standards for Black people; there are invisible and ever-shifting standards that white people don’t ever have to justify. (There are just reasons, OK?!)
Last week is also when NPR reported on the pressures facing Nataki Garrett, the Black artistic director at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The headline (“Oregon Shakespeare Festival focuses on expansion—but is not without its critics”) managed to gloss over the fact that some of the “criticism” Garrett faces in her professional role has come in the form of death threats, so she now travels with a security detail. Seeing Willie “Prince Roc” Round as a young Black man taking what seem to our white eyes as desperate measures to avoid being seen by those who might take his life, after reading about what Garrett has had to endure, was a real gut punch.
In another series of scenes, Penelope Walker plays a Miss Ann-type, bleating about how “wealthy, white, and liberated” she is, while ordering around her driver (Joey Stone) and questioning her maid (who is actually Made, as in a self-made woman, played with simmering rage and panache by McKenzie Chinn). Chinn’s character builds up an arsenal of housekeeping tools that are actually weapons, while deflecting questions about whether or not she has children—until the truth bursts forth in a sorrowful righteous revelation.
The names of so many (too many) lost to racialized violence line the walls of the Lookingglass lobby, alongside poems by Chicagoans like Eve Ewing. The show I attended was dedicated to the memory of Tamir Rice, a little boy killed by police for being a kid and playing with a toy gun in a park, as kids have done for generations. We said his name a dozen times—once for every year of his too-short life. “It happened yesterday. It will happen tomorrow,” we hear over and over as Harris’s singular and compelling piece unfolds. Repetition is a key device in What to Send Up When It Comes Down, reminding us of the numbing regularity with which we hear stories of Black people killed by police and other agents of white supremacy.
At the end of the show, the non-Black audience members are asked to gather in the lobby while the Black audience members stay behind in the stark theater, which is lit by banks of electric candles and with more names of the murdered hanging down from a large fixture at one end of the otherwise bare stage. This separation is not about “division,” as we keep hearing is what happens if we ever talk honestly about racism. It’s about accountability. Black people deserve room to heal and experience joy and hope as well as rage. It’s up to white people to do the work to tear down our own biases and harmful institutions.