Producer’s Note: On this episode, Jordan incorrectly identifies “institutional dramaturgy” being coined by Dr. Faedra Chatard Carpenter. While Dr. Carpenter discusses the concept in-depth in her book Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance, it has origins elsewhere and can be found across scholarship on dramaturgy. We apologize for this misinformation.
The Ritual of What to Send Up When it Goes Down
Daughters of Lorraine Podcast #5
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood, Black feminists, exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley.
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast we'll discuss Black theatre history, conduct interviews with local Black theatre artists and practitioners, and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing. You definitely won't want to miss this, so stay tuned.
It is a conscious and sacred space where non-Black people are welcome to join but not at the expense of the Black folks at its center.
Leticia: In Aleshea Harris' What to Send Up When it Goes Down, a Black woman steps into the room where we are all gathered, announcing that it is for Black people and created with Black people in mind. Framed as a ritual, the show offers an array of vignettes, touching on police brutality, microaggressions, and Black healing. It is a conscious and sacred space where non-Black people are welcome to join but not at the expense of the Black folks at its center. The play was first developed and premiered at the Harriet Tubman Center for Social Justice on 13 November 2015 where Harris herself served as its director.
Jordan: On 11 November 2018, What to Send Up When it Goes Down moved to the Movement Theatre Company in New York City. Directed by Whitney White, the proclaimed play/pageant/ritual/home-going/celebration is a careful engagement with instances of racialized state violence against Black people. Combining poetry, dance, music, and theatre, the piece works more like a ceremony in that it honors those whose lives were stolen too soon and, through audience interaction, fosters community among those who enter this space. We had a chance to experience the ritual at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC but before coming to Woolly, What to Send Up made stops at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Howard University, and THEARC DC.
Leticia: The author of What to Send Up, Aleshea Harris, is both a playwright and performer who's best known for her play Is God Is, for what she won three Obie awards and the American Playwriting Foundation's Relentless Award. Today's episode is dedicated to Harris and her astounding, poignant, and gorgeous ritual, What to Send Up When it Goes Down. Make space for the power of Black rage and how we care for ourselves and each other after it goes down.
Actor 1: The people that are coming because it is the day after or the day before it has gone down. You know what I mean by it, right? It equals some terrible things. Some bang, bang things, some wrong color thing. The shit that don't stop.
Actor 2: Black people!
Actor 2: Black people.
Leticia: Black people!
Leticia: Black people.
Leticia: You beautiful Black people.
Leticia: You smart Black people.
Leticia: Black people.
Leticia: Black people.
Leticia: Woo. I'm so excited to be here today to talk about this wonderful, amazing, impactful show by Aleshea Harris.
Jordan: Yes, yes. And what we just did was a very small excerpt from the show that we saw, and you know not quite as graceful as the performers who did it, but still the impact hopefully is similar.
Leticia: I love this play. We're ending the decade and when you all will be hearing this it will be in January, but this is probably the most impactful show that I've seen in this past decade.
Jordan: I would definitely agree with that. I don't think that I've ever been so moved by a show like weeks and weeks after I saw it. I don't think I'm ever going to forget that I saw this show. And I'm so grateful that we were able to see it, not once, but twice.
Leticia: Me too. I wish we could have seen it multiple, more times than the two times that we seen it because I just craved being back in that space. And the space is so carefully curated.
Jordan: Absolutely, and for those of you are not familiar with What to Send Up When it Goes Down, this is not a traditional sort of play. When we both went there, I can only speak for myself in saying that I was not prepared and expecting what I ended up experiencing in that space. It was that transformative.
Leticia: Me either. And I hadn't heard much about the play prior to us going. I remember seeing it when we went to go see Fairview and I was like, "Black people are in that play? Sounds like I'll be there too." So, I am just so grateful that Woolly Mammoth Theatre knocked it out of the park for their second show of the season with bringing Harris' play to Woolly Mammoth. And what I really appreciate about Harris' play is that she's very pointed about making it clear that this is a space for Black people, and this show is created with Black people in mind. I don't think I've ever been to a show where someone is so... Or a play is so unapologetic about that fact. This is also just to say that there were non-Black people both times we went. So, it's not like it was exclusively just Black people, but I think there's a certain politic in sort of claiming that space from the get-go before we actually enter into a ritual.
Jordan: Yes. And even the framing that non-Black people are welcomed into the space, they are invited in, that it's not theirs to take. In the program, I remember the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Maria Goyanes, wrote about the season programming. Right? So, we had a conversation about Fairview on our very first episode of Daughters of Lorraine. And she said that she wanted this is be an answer to Fairview. Right? And I just want to say that that institutional dramaturgy, which is a term coined by Faedra Chatard Carpenter, that sort of institutional dramaturgy is really, really quite incredible. And you can see that this sort of provided a space that Fairview questioned. Fairview was for all people of color, but What to Send Up is asking specifically, "Okay, what can theatre, performance, ritual, ceremony, et cetera, what does that space look like if it's designed with Blackness at its center?" And I really, I can't stop gushing enough about this show, but honestly, I was very, very much impacted by feeling very seen. And I think that that is one of the many strengths of What to Send Up When it Goes Down is that Black people do not go unseen or unheard.
Leticia: And similar to you, Jordan, I will never be the same after seeing this show. I am truly transformed by it. I wish I could see it every day of my life, and it's something that I will carry on with me, both in my academic and artistic work. And one thing that I really appreciate about this, and I think about this a lot, is what does it mean to sort of put the politics of Blackness at the center of my academic work, my artistic work, and to think about what that actually does to the framing, the experience of a play when a playwright is so bold to say, "Black people, this play is for you, and other people, you can witness it, witness this play." I think that's the language that was used in the plays. You can serve as a conscientious witness, I believe, or something similar to that, that I really appreciate about because I think there's a lot of conversations that try to avoid, or not conversations, a lot of theatres that potentially don't think about what it means to center Black people and not just Black bodies on the stage. What does it mean to produce shows with your Black patrons in mind? And this can extend to other marginalized groups, but being a Black woman, I felt really seen in a certain way, and I felt loved and cared for.
Jordan: And to follow through with that promise, right? It's not just, "Oh, this is for Black people." And then, things happen that are sort of antithetical to that sort of proclamation. But I definitely think that here, it was a very, like you said, conscientious decision on the part of Harris and also all of the performers and designers involved here to make sure this was a Black space. So, in keeping with that sort of line of thought and thinking about creating a Black space and community. So, you and I are very familiar with some Black theatre history, one of the which is WEB Dubois, or as I call him WEB "We Dem Boys." His essay, which is pretty famous, Criteria of Negro Art. And in that essay, essentially he puts forth the philosophy, his philosophy of what Black theatre is and what it's supposed to do, which is be for us, by us, about us, near us. And so, not that we have to stick with that rigid definition of what Black art or Black cultural production or Black theatre has to do. But I would like to talk about that a little bit, specifically in relation to What to Send Up When it Goes Down because we've really been talking about how this is a Black play, and we felt like Blackness was at the center of this. And so, let's think about some of the tenants of maybe what Dubois put forth or even our own sort of definitions of Black theatre. But what makes this Black? I mean, yes, we felt cared for, we felt loved, but what are... Let's talk about some other aspects of this that made it feel like a Black play.
Leticia: The first thing that sort of sticks out to me and sort of we mentioned this in our introduction, is that before the show showed up at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, it was in the community and in the community where prices were of like $5 or free. There's just an access that was offered to folks in the DC area that were bringing theatre to you. When we think about Black theatre and we think about Dubois' and his tenants of a Black theatre, which you said we don't necessarily have to follow, is often the piece that falls out of that is near us. And I think this play really pushes the near us because it wasn't a cop out of, "Well maybe we'll bus some people in to come to these theatres." No, we're actually going to take our art to you.
Jordan: Absolutely, and obviously we don't want to overlook the Black artists that are already doing that in the communities already. Right? And there's plenty of Black people who are creating their art in space that Black people are already in. But I will say that this was something unexpected, I feel like, in a regional theatre company because so many times in these sort of bigger companies that do have access, and do have the money, right? They have the financial capabilities will often cop out and say, "Oh we didn't have Black audiences because Black people just don't come see our shows or people of color just don't come see our shows." No, that's when you bring the theatre to them, right? And you consciously partner with folks in the community to do so, right? So, it's not this colonial venture of like, "I'm going to bring the theatre to these poor Black people that can't come." Right? It's a conscious partnership that I think is the most important aspect of community, is through that exchange. So, I am really, really quite impressed with that aspect of What to Send Up When it Goes Down specifically. And I hope that other regional theatres will follow suit. Right? And to be in community with the folks that they say that they're serving.
Leticia: Exactly, and you make a great point about it being a partnership and not merely on the Black playwright, the Black director, the Black actors to sort of create this partnership with local communities, but that it is actually a deep investment of the regional theatre, or the theatre at large, to make sure that where they're situated, they're engaging in the communities who live there, who work there, who've been there before they were there.
Jordan: So, we've talked about the spaces where the play was presented and our sort of personal initial reactions to What to Send Up When it Goes Down. So, let's talk about the play itself. I feel like that's where the meat is. So, before the production or ritual, pageant, homecoming service, et cetera beings, there is an exhibit that we are asked to go into. This exhibit, when you walk in, it's immediately the walls were all covered with portraits of Black folks. And upon looking at the portraits, I don't know about you Leticia, but I definitely began to see faces that I recognized. Also, something that I really appreciated was that there were laptops set up in the exhibit where you could put on headphones and watch video compilations of comedic videos when you... I think the language used was to take a breath, right? Or to just step away. And I do remember watching those videos when I felt a little bit overwhelmed from the space. And wow, what a smart choice, and what a care... A choice that was full of care for the folks who were experiencing it. And I did find it really difficult to be inundated with images of Black folks who lost their hand, lost their lives, excuse me, at the hands of state violence. But what I also appreciated about the photos were that they weren't all sort of depicting these scenes of subjection, to use Cynthia Hartman's term, of like these are "regular" photographs of them. These are quotidian, the everyday portraitures of them. So, I really appreciated the research that went into finding these images, and Black people smiling. And I know that it's difficult because they're no longer here, right? So, you don't want to sort of romanticize their deaths in that way, but sometimes you just want to remember Black folks smiling. And I really appreciate that this exhibit remembered Black people smiling. Christina Sharpe said it best in her book, In the Wake, of how do you defend the dead? And I think that this is in defense of the dead, right? And it's a care for the dead, and it is a mourning for the dead. So, continued to be very moved by that, and it reminds me that part of fighting and part of being in the struggle, whatever the struggle may be to whomever is listening to this is care.
Leticia: I love that. I love this idea of honoring the dead that you offered or that Christina Sharpe offered that then you offered to the podcast. After we are in this moment where we get to walk around, look at these photos, perhaps take a break with these iPads of these moments of Black humor, we are then stopped by an actress who comes into the space. If people are outside of the space, they're asked to enter the room with the photos where they essentially just set up the rules of engagement. After that, we're led to the playing space where the ritual takes place and before we enter the playing space, we're asked to take a black ribbon and wear it in honor of those who have passed at the hands of state violence, which I think is again, another way that care is illustrated in this show. And thinking about how we bring these folks into the space that I really, really appreciate it. I still have it now, and I'm never ever taking it off.
Jordan: Still wear mine. I still have it. It is such a reminder in a tangible way, and actually in a small way really, of how we can both remember the moment that we entered into the ritual. But also a reminder that this fight is not over, and that it will take all of us to struggle against anti-Black violence. Part of the play, ritual, pageant is vignettes, and whew, let me tell you the moment of... So, there's activities, I guess you could call them, at the beginning of the show where it almost feels like you're enter of an anti-racist workshop. And I think that that's intentional and I really appreciated that aspect of it. That transition from the activities into the sort of, I guess formal, or formalized ritual...
Jordan: I mean, we're singing. They're leading us in this song, which the music was completely written and composed by Harris, which fantastic.
Leticia: Look, if you got it. If you got it, you got it. Aleshea Harris, know the name. If you don't know the name, now you know the name. Read the work, buy the work, go see the shows. I'm so happy that I got to experience her work, and I'm so excited to see what next for her. But if you've got the skills, you got the skills.
Jordan: And so, the transition from that activity workshop space into the sort of formalized production was absolutely unexpected. I mean, we are asked to go and sit in our seats after being gathered in a circle, and talking and writing letters and all of these sort of things. And then, it just hits, right?
Leticia: Boom, boom, boom.
Jordan: Of like the stepping and their singing, and there's-
Leticia: Do you want to sing it for us?
Jordan: It's just amazing. No, I'm not a singer. I'm not a singer. The transition into that was amazing, and then we sort of experienced these different vignettes of the players or the actors embodying these different characters within the show. It's not linear by any stretch of the imagination, but we do get these sort of different storylines that we're following within the ritual.
Leticia: Yes, so after that transition, we're asked to sit down. We then enter the formalized portion of the show, but what I really appreciate about this moment is that it doesn't lose that engagement with the audience in a weird way. When you're there, these actors and actresses are looking you dead in your face. Are you a white person experienced this play? Well, when I say this thing about racism, I'm going to look you directly in your face and make you confront that reality. And if it's something about being mad, I'm going to look at the Black people in the face, in the eyes, and tell them that guess what? It's okay to be mad. And this show is very intimate in that way. And I think it's created with that in mind.
Jordan: Yeah, and something that we both sort of observed up our viewings of What to Send Up When it Goes Down was that we both really felt that it validated Black rage, right? And there was sort of an unapologetic understanding that Black folks are angry, and we, quite frankly, have a right to be. What does Solange say in her song, Mad? You have a lot to be mad about. And I feel like that particular affect is very, very present within the play. And in an article interview that Aleshea Harris did at American Theatre called What to Send Up When it Goes Down: A Black Gaze, in which she is interviewed by Brenden Jacobs Jenkins, who is another Black playwright. She's says about anger and rage in the play that "I also wanted to be really clear about rage because rage and anger are central to a lot of my work. This has to do with the cultural pressure for me not to be angry or the ways that, since I was a little girl, I received a message that anger wasn't something I could hold on to." I'm going off on a tangent. I hope that's okay. But I really appreciate that statement because I saw... Man, this show was about anger, and I feel like that's a part of the care.
Leticia: I agree with that. I think one of the things that sticks with me about the play is how it's so grounded in anger, and rage of Black people and I felt so seen. I felt like I was given permission to experience those feelings, and it's not even just them saying that they're mad or saying that they're angry, but just the way those actors are in it. I mean, the are in it. They are, I told Jordan this when we seen the show, I said they're about to stomp a hole through this floor. They are so invested in it that I don't even think there's a separation of character or actor and actress. This is the anger built up for all these Black people in this show being taken out night by night. And the show is just so heavy that I just commend all the actors and actresses of this show for showing up every day, maybe sometimes two shows in a day and just leaving their heart in their chest, and everything out in the theatre.
Jordan: I mean, they're sweating, they're spitting, they're crying. I mean, it's everything, right? It is. It's labor, and I wholly appreciate the labor of performers in general because I'm not a performer, but I... It just, they were literally putting their bodies out there for us, right? To witness them in that space. And so, I really...
Leticia: And I think that begins with anger being central to it.
Jordan: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.
Leticia: And there's a moment before we get into the formalized space of the play where we're invited to yell.
Leticia: And yell as long as we need to.
Jordan: Oh yeah.
Leticia: And if we need to take a breath and start yelling again, that is okay. And I think it's such a core principle of it, and I really appreciate this... I really like that anger seemed to be the driving force of the play, throughout the many vignettes.
Leticia: One of my favorites, without giving too much away, which is a little bit of humor because this play was also funny, right?
Jordan: Yeah, it is.
Leticia: The way we're talking about it makes it seem like, "Oh. Man, it was rough." But no, there's-
Jordan: Just kidding.
Leticia: It was, there were moments where it was really funny.
Jordan: It's funny!
Leticia: It is a funny play!
Jordan: It's funny!
Leticia: When that girl snatches that white man's lips odd of his face, funny. If you seen it, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, go see it then you will.
Jordan: If you know, you know.
Leticia: If you know, you know. But I think that even in like these moments of joy and humor, there's that underpinning of anger that Black people, frankly, are not allowed to have in many spaces.
Jordan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Leticia: We're both in PhD programs. We probably both get interpolated as angry a lot of times, especially if we stand up for something or we stand up for ourselves.
Jordan: And there are particular even types of Black people who are often seen as angry, even more than we are. Right? And their anger is never validated. And so, I appreciate... Something I really appreciate about this show too, is the spectrum of representation of Black folks, even on the stage. I think that one of my favorite monologues was when one of the women performers is talking about, I tried to love you. And she goes into this monologue that really describes that... It's so much about anger because she's kind of losing her mind throughout the play of like, I tried to be that token Black girl, you know? I tried to be your friend, I tried to love you, but all you did was take, take, take, take, take and woo. And who among us, especially Black women, hasn't been in that space, right? Like where you have tried, you try, you try so hard. You do what you're supposed to do. You believe in these sort of democratic principles. You believe in this meritocracy. You believe in human rights only for it to fail you, but also others. And I also appreciate that these sort of quotidian experiences that are shown in this play, because all of those sort of little moments can lead to a spectacularized violences.
Leticia: And I love how it confronts whiteness. I love how that anger is not just anger that is experienced privately, but is experienced in front of and with white people. So, I'm thinking about the play within the play. All the players, all the actors are all Black people just to foreclose that. But in the play within in the play, there is this white character played by this Black man. A white woman from the South, whose hands are clean, who has folks working for her. And we get this character description of Made, but not M-A-I-D, made as in M-A-D-E, a woman of her own devising, who every time we encounter her, she's sharpening a knife, loading a gun. She's confronting whiteness with this anger that it's not merely something that has to be on a shelf away, that white people don't ever get to see.
Jordan: And shout out to Aleshea Harris I'm pretty sure this was intentional of sharpening your oyster knife. But I trip out at that reference both of the times that I saw What to Send Up because for those of you who are unfamiliar, Zora Hurston has a quote of "I do not weep at the world. I'm too busy sharpening my oyster knife," and it's one of the guiding principles of my life. So, shout out to that visual representation of Made sharpening her oyster knife because she's not weeping, right? She is not full... She's full of sorrow because she's full of rage. And I really appreciate that little nugget of Blackness, Black history there within the play. So, I just wanted to say that because that is one of my, like most of this play, but one of my favorite parts because it's so subtle, right?
Leticia: Yeah, so we have these middle moments, these vignettes and it sort of all culminates in this moment where one of the characters that we've been following through his vignettes is talking about how he's hollowed out. So, it is assumed that he... So, just to give you a little bit more framing, he is someone who cuts himself in order to look like the dead ones. The dead ones mean dead Black people, so that they already think he's dead. So, they actually won't kill him. But by the end of the ritual, we learn that he's actually dead. But what's different about his death or us watching him sort of be led into death is that he doesn't die alone. And it's one of the most beautiful moments of the play, is that one of the other Black men in the play literally invites him to the ground to die and leads him and helps him into death.
Jordan: So, there's white pieces of paper that are scattered throughout the space and throughout the show, which we talked about... We were like, "What are the white papers mean? What do the white papers mean?" And at that moment though, they are given these sort of white material... Or it's not white, excuse me, red materials that are scraps that they take and they hold and they say their names and a name of somebody that they want to send up or they want to honor. And then, drop something Black people, and they drop those red papers on his body. But then, which is one of the most poignant moments of the show is when they all, the entire cast, picks him up and brushes him off, and cleans him up. Such a small moment, but for me, one of the most moments that were full of so much care is picking, all of them, helping him up out of his rest and cleaning his body, every drop. I mean, it's one of the images I don't think will ever leave my mind because of that, just the small, right? It's so small but it was so impactful.
Leticia: Yeah, because think about the labor of having to be that actor every night and playing dead and knowing that any moment you could actually just be dead. And then, there's no getting up, and there's no getting cleaned off. There's none of that. Right? So, I think there's a reality that that actor in particular has to face when he's face down enacting death because death for him is not something that just happens in a play, but it's actually a reality that can happen at any moment.
Jordan: Yeah, but even that sort of traumatic moment is accompanied with so much love and community, which I think is something that is such a staple within Black culture. Obviously, not a blanket statement about every Black person everywhere, but in my life I've been so blessed to have a community that I feel would brush me off, every piece, as well. So, to capture that, how we find community with each other in the midst of so much pain and trauma is a testament to the amazing work that What to Send Up When it Goes Down does. I also want to acknowledge that this labor of love does not go unnoticed. And I also want to recognize that there are so many people who are literally putting their bodies on the line for the liberation of Black folks every single day. And I appreciate art like this that represents that. And I also truly, and I cannot say this enough, truly appreciate those who really put their lives out on the line. Those community organizers, those protestors, those activist who do this every day. And as much as we care for those who have gone, we should also care for those who are here and who are fighting on behalf of the liberation of Black people.
Leticia: Beautifully said, Jordan, beautifully said. So, per usual we are going to offer you a reading list to, one, help frame some of the conversations that we had today, but also if you're interested in reading similar work, similar work to this play, this gives you a starting place to experience some of those plays.
Jordan: Yeah, so since What to Send Up When it Goes Down most resembles the genre form of the choreopoem, which was invented, coined by Ntozake Shange. We would be remiss if we did not suggest some of her work. One of the canonical texts of Black theatre, specifically within a Black feminist context, is that of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. And then, also one of her lesser known choreopoems, Spell Number Seven, are definitely two plays that Leticia and I would recommend. And also, in the spirit of choreopoems, we would also recommend For Black Trans Girls Who Gotta Cuss A Mother Fucker Out When Snatching An Edge Ain’t Enough, by lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. It rifts on the original for colored girls, but does so while focusing on Black trans women, which both of us find extremely, extremely important to the conversation.
Leticia: For the books, we have a treat for you. So, the first book that we want to recommend is In the Wake of Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe. Then, we have In the Break: the Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition by Fred Moten. And then, finally, Black Pentecostal Breadth: the Aesthetics of Possibility by Ashton Crowley. These books will definitely get your mind thinking and thinking about it relates to Black theatre at-large. And we cannot recommend these texts more than we already do. They're from great authors.
Jordan: We would like to thank the incredible folks at HowlRound Theatre Commons for sponsoring Daughters of Lorraine. And we'd also like to thank Timmy Metzner at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for recommending this play but also for the support that the marketing department has given to Daughters of Lorraine as well.
Leticia: Yes, and finally, thank you to all the incredible artists at Movement Theatre Company, Whitney White and Aleshea Harris for your amazing work on this production. We know that this ritual is headed to the Public Theater in New York from 10 January to 19 January next. So, for those of you in the area, we cannot recommend that you check this play out enough. So, please, please, please if you can find tickets, get the tickets, don't think about it, just say buy, and go and see this wonderful, impactful play.
Jordan: And if you read any of our recommendations or see any of the shows that we discuss, including What to Send Up When it Goes Down, but also Fairview or Jitney, we really want to talk to you. We really want to know what y'all think. So, you can reach me, Jordan, at J-A-Ealey on Twitter and Ealey is spelled E-A-L-E-Y. And you can reach Leticia at L-L-Ridley, or LL_Ridley.
Leticia: We are your hosts, Letitia Ridley.
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. Next time, we'll be interviewing dramaturg and director, and our good brother, Otis Ramsey Zoë. You definitely won't want to miss that.