In ‘What to Send Up,’ I See You, Black American Theater

We didn’t know what to do about this piece.

Whether I, a Black critic, ought to evaluation Aleshea Harris’s breathtaking “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” despite the fact that my former colleague Ben Brantley, a white critic, already reviewed and raved in regards to the present’s preliminary run in 2018. Whether I must be in dialog with a white critic or one other Black critic.

This is the piece I got here up with: I’m reporting on a second in time when I, a Black critic and a Black lady in America, felt the most secure and most embraced by my Blackness in a theater.

On a dark Friday night, I went to BAM Fisher for the play, being offered by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Playwrights Horizons in affiliation with the Movement Theater Company. I headed to the downstairs foyer, which featured portraits of Black women and men killed by the police. The room was stuffed with Black individuals.

If you possibly can’t think about the consolation of being with individuals who appear to be you in an area the place artwork is being made, it’s one thing like sipping from a steaming cup within the lifeless of winter: the heat is treasured, quick and surprising abruptly.

Harris, a veritable poet of a playwright who additionally wrote “Is God Is,” describes the play as “a space in the theater that is unrepentantly for and about Black people” — “a space for affirming, and reflecting.” She calls it “an anger spittoon” and “a dance party.” It’s true that “What to Send Up” feels much less like a play than it does a collection of cathartic experiences — which isn’t to say it isn’t stunning theater, as a result of it’s nonetheless very a lot that.

Early on within the present, directed by Whitney White, in a sort of intimate workshop, one performer (Kalyne Coleman, who’s beautiful as each a performer and the host) asks the viewers members, who’re all standing in a big semicircle, to step ahead in the event that they’d ever witnessed a race-based act of police brutality or in the event that they’d ever been a sufferer of a racially motivated act of police brutality. Most individuals stepped ahead after the previous. About a dozen individuals, of the 50 or so in attendance, stepped ahead in response to the latter, together with a 30-something Black couple.

Then a collection of skits charts all of the horrific methods Black persons are stereotyped and customarily misrepresented in artwork and in actual life. There are biting parodies of troubling Black tropes in leisure, just like the supplicant servant figures in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Help.” And there are surreal monologues (one lady recounts how she snatched the mouth off a white man and the way it flopped like a fish) alongside stepping, choral songs and spoken phrase.

This was a present that validated my worry and sorrow as a Black citizen of this nation and but nonetheless alerted me to the privilege of getting had a sheltered suburban upbringing. I thought in regards to the first time somebody straight referred to as me the N-word, casually slinging it to the aspect of my face whereas I was strolling via Midtown Manhattan one weeknight. I considered all of the occasions I’ve felt uncomfortable as a Black individual in an area — in my profession, in academia, in social settings. I considered my rising discomfort round cops, particularly within the final a number of years.

It’s uncommon for a play to enable me entry to each that validation and that consciousness of my privilege — as a result of so not often is Blackness proven onstage and so pointedly aimed towards a Black viewers with all of the nuances and variations that come inside the experiences of their lives.

Denise Manning, left, and Kalyne Coleman in “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”Credit…Donna Ward

At one level within the present, there’s a symbolic Black demise, tender although devastating, adopted by an prolonged second of silence. At one other level, we had been invited to write messages to Black Americans — they’d be part of the scores of postcards with messages from different viewers members that adorn the partitions of the theater. Later we had been requested to set free a collective, soul-cleansing scream — one thing I, an introvert, would normally move on. But the mighty wall of sound led by Black voices — an ideal sound of exaltation and frustration and defiance abruptly — invited me in, and my very own voice, unsteady and hesitant, joined. It was like stretching a muscle I by no means realized existed; the sensation was overwhelming in its depth and launch.

But, I questioned, can any such house really and wholly be for a Black viewers, particularly when there are white viewers members there, too? Some a part of me was quietly policing the white individuals within the theater — how they responded to sure scenes and questions, if and once they laughed at sure jokes, in the event that they appeared to maintain themselves accountable, in the event that they had been taking over an excessive amount of house.

As a critic and a reporter, a part of what I do is learn the room — how and why audiences react to the happenings onstage, and what that claims in regards to the work. But right here, I didn’t need to care. In the present’s remaining minutes, non-Black viewers members had been invited to depart the theater and collect within the foyer. When I recounted this to a good friend afterward, she requested what the white audiences noticed, if something, however I don’t know and — I know that is shameful to admit — I don’t care.

I am involved solely with how Harris’s play made me and the opposite Black individuals in that room really feel. I famous how the couple from earlier clutched one another via a lot of the present. At some level, the girl left and returned wet-eyed with a handful of tissues. Her accomplice lovingly rubbed her again.

I additionally ended the present in tears, which I hadn’t anticipated — however amongst Black performers and viewers members, I felt newly seen and secure. I had a contemporary second of realization, contemplating my responsibility as a Black critic. And as a Black poet, I had a second of inspiration: I need extra artwork like this.

Affirmations, exclamations of pleasure, moments of commemoration: I’ll skip the particulars of these previous couple of holy minutes that had been unique to the Black viewers. I need to honor and prolong the loving, communal Black house Harris creates in an artwork type that has so few of them. And I need to preserve it for myself — and for that couple and for the Black lady who, earlier within the present, had stated she wished for a future model of this nation the place she may really feel extra “human.”

I took a sluggish tour of the theater after the present, and browse the messages others had left. “When you breathe, the universe sings,” one notecard learn. Any different day in every other place in America, I’d in all probability discover that sentiment too hokey. When have I ever heard singing when inhaling the air of this supposedly nice free nation?

But at BAM Fisher on that Friday evening, I believed in a tune of neighborhood, of energy and sweetness and Black life regardless of no matter funereal tune is pressured upon the lives of Black Americans. Of course I consider in theater for everybody, however I additionally consider in theater for Black individuals, and Black individuals alone.

Leaving the venue, I considered what a pleasure and privilege it was to obtain theater gift-wrapped particularly for me. And what a pleasure and privilege it’s for me to laud it. But the larger pleasure? To let you know one thing particular occurred among the many Black individuals in a theater with a qualifier: This play, non-Black theater lover, just isn’t for or about you, and that’s completely advantageous.

What to Send Up When It All Goes Down

Through July 11 at BAM Fisher; bam.org