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Sharpening Our Oyster Knives: Revisiting What to Send Up When It Goes Down

Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies and future of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley and Jordan Ealey. On this podcast, we will discuss Black theatre history, we’ll have interviews with Black theatre artists and practitioners, and we’ll discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing. You don’t want to miss this. Stay tuned.

In 2019, What to Send Up When It Goes Down by Aleshea Harris came to Washington, D.C. as a stop on its national tour, which included places such as New York and Massachusetts. Produced by the Movement Theatre Company, and directed by visionary artist Whitney White, the ritual was performed at different venues around the district, among them Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Howard University, and THEARC D.C. before ending its D.C. leg at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Jordan and I saw the production at Woolly three times, and even covered the performance on the first season of Daughters of Lorraine, which remains one of our favorite episodes to this day.

Jordan Ealey: When live theatre was suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and highly publicized instances of anti-Black violence led to political uprisings and industry-wide examinations, it was an instant reminder of What to Send Up’s continued relevance. This past summer, the production returned to live performances in a co-production between Brooklyn Academy of Music and Playwrights Horizons.

So, in the spirit of live theatre’s return, and the restaging of this production that wowed us two years ago, this episode revisits What to Send Up When It Goes Down. But this time, we are joined by two very special guests: Aleshea Harris and Whitney White themselves. In the conversation that follows, we discuss the beauty of Black femme rage, the craft of Black performance, and their inspiring creative collaboration.

Leticia: Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine. I know we’ve been gone for a minute, but we’re back with the jump off. And let me tell you, do we have a treat for you! I am so thrilled, Jordan, that we get to speak to this person today, and I’m bubbling with excitement, because you have your intellectual heroes, artistic heroes, and as an academic, I think this person’s artistic work will also follow me in my career, in that I want to become so ingrained in her work that they’ll be like, “Oh, Leticia is this person’s scholar.” You know how they talk about August Wilson right?

Jordan: Yeah. Yes. We are so thrilled to be able to talk to the one, the only, Aleshea Harris. Thank you so much for joining us today. Yeah, so we’re just going to talk about the restaging of What to Send Up When It Goes Down that has recently opened at Playwrights Horizons, and we got a chance to talk about this work when Leticia and I saw it—what three times?—when it was here in Washington, D.C.

Aleshea Harris: Wow.

Leticia: Three times not enough is what I was saying.

Jordan: Yeah.

Aleshea: Oh my goodness. That is such an honor, thank you both. Black women academics, saying what you just said, Leticia, I’m like, “I have arrived. Let’s go.” Truly.

Jordan: Yes. Well, I mean, such an inspiring work. I’ve said this over and over again that seeing that production changed, not just my way of talking about, thinking about, theatre, but just the way that I discuss and study and live my Black life, I feel like. So, very impactful piece. Also, one of our most listened episodes on Daughters of Lorraine. I know a lot of people are very... love that episode. Love that inspired them to go and check out your work, so this was really exciting for us. It’s a full circle moment in many ways.

Aleshea: Mm-hmm. Thank you. I’m glad to be a part of the circle. I’m glad to be here.

Leticia: What to Send Up... and I told Jordan this. I may have said it when we were previously talking about What to Send Up, was that it was the first time I’ve ever left a theatre and felt something so visceral. So, thank you for the work. Thank you for putting your heart on the page and stage, and I want to open with an opening moment of the play where you say that this is a space where Black folks are prioritized. And I was wondering if you can talk a bit about that decision-making to say that this work is for Black people, that we’re prioritizing the gaze of Black people, and other folks are invited to participate in this ritual, but you are not centered, right? I think that’s such a profound part of What to Send Up that really impacted me.

Aleshea: Mm-hmm. Sure. So, throughout the creation and then the many revisions, through the life of the piece, I have asked myself what I’m doing and how I’m serving Black folks. Through the language, through the scenes, through the [inaudible] scene, through everything. What are we doing for Black people? What do they need as they come into this space? And it really felt important to me to add this language—it wasn’t there from the very beginning—just to lay the space, because I know that absent that language, there’s a way that white supremacy has taught us all that everything is for white people; that we are centering their gaze, their tastes, we are taking a special care of them, and that is not the case with What to Send Up When It Goes Down.

So, I wanted to say that for Black folks, for us, so that hopefully people feel welcome. They feel acknowledged, they know this is for you, and to let that do the work that it’s going to do. And then also for non-Black folks, so that they understand in this space, Black folks are elevated, celebrated, acknowledged. I’m looking at you through these words, and through the things that I’ve given these players to do, and through the things that all of us, the designers, that we are holding hands in community around and for Black people.

And it just felt like just throwing down a gauntlet, and a welcome mat, and saying, “This is what this is. This is why this is.” And I’ve heard, the feedback that I’ve received, tells me that it’s working, and that folks, a lot of folks, I think until they hear that—and myself even as I consider it—do not feel that way in the theatre. Even for some work that’s written to be occupied by Black bodies, doesn’t always feels like this is for us. So, yeah.

Jordan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that it’s something that we also felt in watching that. I mean, to know... to state that purpose right from the beginning, that this is for Black people, was automatically a shift in the room, it felt like, whenever we saw that, right? It was like you’re stating your commitments early on, and we continued to foster those commitments throughout the duration of the performance, which was wonderful. And something we also were thinking about in terms of What to Send Up is about... so we talked about the anger and the rage, and it reminds us of Audre Lorde in her speech, “The Uses of Anger” that she gave—

Aleshea: Yes.

Jordan: —at the National Women’s Studies Conference. Yeah. Yes. Where anger is a source of knowledge. It’s a source of power and energy for change for women of color, and so what role does this anger play in your mind, in What to Send Up but really also in your work as a playwright?

Aleshea: Anger is major for me. I read that essay and it just felt like chills. I think sometimes when one experiences a piece of art, whether it be literature or theatre, one feels like it’s speaking directly to them. It was written for them, it was written by—

Jordan: Yes.

Aleshea: —a distant godmother who was like, “Let me bless you. I’ll never meet you, but let me bless you.” And I feel that a lot. I felt that a lot certainly reading that essay, and with a lot of Toni Morrison’s work. We can go on and on, but I’ll continue to answer your question. So, I feel like anger is something that was denied me as a girl. I think Black girls, I think all girls but specifically Black girls—I can speak to the ways that I felt denied my anger as a Black girl, because that anger could get me into more trouble than it would and could another girl.

I was meant to be quick to forgive, and soft, and compliant, I think is the big thing, and to play by these certain dictates of respectability politics. And you know the politics shift depending on one’s gender, sexuality, et cetera. So as a girl child, it was like: be nice, be good, you’re still mad about that? You don’t have a right to that anger, was the message that I received. And I think that a lot of my work is actually talking back to that, pushing against that, and reminding especially Black girls and women that we have a right to our anger. That it is completely justified, and I hope that it doesn’t burn us alive, because I also think that it can be destructive, but I think that it should be there, and I think the first step towards a healing about misogynoir and the many ways that it shows up, is to acknowledge, to accept, and to bring that anger into the fold so that it can be directed in ways that nurture ourselves and each other.

So, I am all about some anger. Anybody who reads my work, it is incandescent with rage. I do not shrink from it. I lean into it, and I think that it will... I don’t know that I’ll ever stop doing that. Because it feels like necessary fuel. I will say that anger, in terms of creating this piece, was very important because the anger was what kept me going even though I was afraid. And I did a lot of things with this work that I had never done before. I don’t know if you all know, but before it went up in New York, I directed it myself in California, and it went up a few different places. I had never directed before. I had never directed a piece that people would be paying money to see before. I had never produced before at this scale and I was doing everything by myself

And what allowed me to do that was the anger, which plugged me into this mission of: this work has to happen, Aleshea. And without anger, I don’t think—the piece wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be speaking about it. So, the goddess anger, I love her. I kneel at her feet and I do what needs to be done to make sure that folks understand that she is useful. So, that’s it. Yeah. So, a lot of the early days was fed by me angrily making sure this thing happened, and then inside of the work, and even today, inside of the work there’s a great deal of expressing anger.

Because again, I didn’t want us Black people to feel that we needed to shrink from that. I didn’t want... this is a no gaslighting space with regard to anti-Blackness. It is real, and we are and should feel angry about it. I think that communalizing grief is important, and I think that part of that is again saying, this is happening, it hurts, and it makes me mad. I almost said a cuss word. I don’t want to get y’all in any kind of trouble, but it makes me upset, and I don’t know.

I think acknowledgement of anger is important and I think expressions of anger inside of the work create a catharsis for the people who are seeing it who haven’t been allowed that anger. Who haven’t been allowed to go near it, for whom it is dangerous, and I think for all of us it is. I just feel like it’s a great... it can be a space of liberation. To see Made sharpening the weapon, loading the bow and arrow. And I also wanted the anger to show up in ways that are different.

I think we’ve all experienced work that has anger expressed in a manner we’ve seen a million times before. Yelling, fists in the air—and that’s all powerful, but I think some of those symbolic gestures have lost their power, because that’s the way we’ve seen the Black anger show up. And so I wanted to find some new ways, some new territory, for that expression. And so, Made sharpening weapons, loading weapons, is one way. The moment when she goes in with her monologue about how she gave the talk to her son, but then I turn the talk on its head.

I think we have an expectation, and I’m playing with that. The way that the whole piece is seething throughout, and then it just has this explosion when one character is killed. It’s all me reaching into that anger, and holding it up to say to the Black folks who bear witness, “This is real. This is all wild, and you have a right to the way that you feel. Now here’s a way for us to take care of each other and remain joyful in this space of anger.” Okay, that’s a mouthful. Is that—

Leticia: It was a mouthful of brilliance. That’s what I’m going to say.

Jordan: Yes. I’m about to go sharpen my oyster knife.

Aleshea: Yes. Do what you got to do.

Leticia: I really just love what you said about anger. About showing different representations of how anger shows up. And I’m reminded of Solange, when she said, “We got a lot to be mad about.” But also—

Aleshea: Yes.

Leticia: —the tightrope of walking anger, right?

Aleshea: Mm-hmm.

Leticia: Like you said, I think you used the phrase that it could still burn us, right?

Aleshea: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Leticia: So, I really love that, and I want to also go back to something you said about your first time directing the piece. You had never directed before, and I wanted to ask about how was bringing Whitney White into the fold in the piece? How did that process develop? How did her influence as a director impact What to Send Up When It Goes Down?

Aleshea: Sure. So, the Movement Theater Company, Harlem-based Movement Theater Company, whoop whoop, shout them out. They got a hold of the text—

Leticia: Yes.

Aleshea: Yes, because again, I don’t know if we’d be chatting without the Movement. So, love the Movement. They got a hold of the text, and they committed to producing it, and they wanted to introduce me to directors. I was very interested in having someone else come onboard because I’d done it a few times, but I knew that someone else would come in with their gifts and bring new extraordinary life to the piece. And Whitney was one of the folks that I met with, and she just clearly had great love for it. I appreciated the way that she spoke about it, and she was super duper down.

So, we got in, and gosh, Whitney is... I know you’ve seen this work. I don’t know if you’ve seen Amen Corner, which I know went up in D.C., or any of her other work. But she is just a brilliant creator of stage pictures. She’s a brilliant captain of the ship. She’s such a good and generous collaborator, which is really important to me, because I, of course, came in with all this heat about: Well, I’ve directed it, and I know what this is. I have ideas about this, and she was very nurturing around, okay, hearing that, and then elevating it, and giving it... bringing her skills to the piece.

One example that I love to talk about is that, there’s music in the piece that I created, but particularly the first song that they sing. All I have is a melody and they do these chest slaps. Anyone who’s seen the piece knows that there’s this rhythm. I had a melody and I had that. Whitney added—invited—the cast to do things with breath and additionally with rhythm that I hadn’t thought about that just really lifted it and made the visceral experience of that song so much stronger. So, I’m like, “If you going to get you a director, get you somebody who’s going to take what you’re doing and help you to do it better.” And that is what Whitney White did for this piece.

I think that she’s just really good with music, and when I think about dramaturgy and dramaturgy that doesn’t live on the page but lives in the body, the dramaturgy of the collective consciousness of the diaspora, sis has got it. She can look at what I’m doing, hear me talk about it—and I be talking a lot. I’m one of these persons with a lot of opinions, a lot of thoughts, and she hears it, and it moves through her body and her spirit, and she turned it into something that’s so dynamic and extraordinary. So, yeah she’s great. And there’s an installation—this is not written into the text—the installation with all the faces that now travels with the piece; that is the brilliance of Whitney White and the designers.

Just really smart people. Looking at what I did, or what I’m trying to do, and extending that. Extending the reach of that, and giving it more color, more depth. Yeah, so I feel like that’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life is inviting Whitney White inside of this thing, and her opening new doors into this work. And now, I call her my art wife because we’re working on another project.

Leticia: On Sugarland?

Aleshea: Yes. We are working out On Sugarland.

Leticia: We are waiting.

Aleshea: Yes.

Jordan: We’re ready.

Aleshea: Oh, I’m so excited to hear that. Yeah, y’all have got to come through. It’s going to be really special, I think. Yeah.

Jordan: I love that phrase: “dramaturgy of the body.”

Leticia: And I will say—

Jordan: We’re both dramaturgs and so we’re very into thinking about ways of approaching dramaturgy that isn’t just, “This is about structure,” because that’s not... that doesn’t always hold up when we’re talking about Black performance, right? We have so many ways of creating that is not in structure. So, go ahead, Leticia.

Leticia: Yeah. I also want to say, academics, if you’re listening to Daughters of Lorraine, make sure you let... cite the source of Aleshea Harris on that one.

Jordan: Yes.

Leticia: But also, I think there’s something really profound about this concept of dramaturgy of the body, because I would say, I would argue, that it is a diasporic, theatrical language, right?

Aleshea: Mm-hmm.

Leticia: That I think really lives through What to Send Up When It Goes Down. I remember viscerally being at Woolly Mammoth Theater, and turning to Jordan on one of the three times we’d seen it, and saying, “I want to get in that line. I want to start beating my chest.”

Three people standing with their elbows outward and fists inward.

Cyndii Johnson, Javon Q. Minter, and Adrianna Mitchell. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Aleshea: Yes.

Leticia: I was about to hop out my seat, right?

Aleshea: Mm-hmm.

Leticia: I’d never been in any rehearsal, but there was something that was happening in my body that felt like I could jump in at any point of the ritual.

Aleshea: Mm-hmm.

Jordan: Yeah, and we talk a lot about call and response, right, within Black performance, right? That there’s that form is a part of what we do, and for me and Leticia, seeing this play, it was like... or excuse me, ritual, pageant, mourning, memorial all these different things, was the call was from the performers, but we responded with our bodies.

We didn’t have to yell or scream but it was like even the moments when the performers would... there were particular moments where they would look at Black audience members versus non-Black audience members, and it was always different in many different ways. So, yeah. I still remember it, I feel like. I still feel it in my body.

Aleshea: Yes. I’m so glad, pleased, and honored to hear that. I think the step... you’re talking about the step choreography and those motifs, which are very HBCU, and so step vocabulary had been a part of the piece, but it was my weak whack step thing that I... when I met Whitney, and she was just so good about encouraging it to go further. To be more profound, and more specific and nuanced, and that is the joy. And again, I feel like that sends a signal, this dramaturgy of the body, this invisible signal. We know it.

We know that rhythm from the beginning, we know that line. We know the ring shout at the end, because of the ways that we experienced that in our culture. And that I could never write onto the page, right? That’s inscribed in the DNA, in the spirit. There are all these other ways that that transference happens, and Whitney is... that’s what I’m trying to speak to is her brilliance at understanding the power of that. And I think a lot of people come to What to Send Up, especially folks who aren’t of our community, and they think that there’s some secret.

I’m like, “There’s no secret. We just have a language that you can’t access for obvious reasons.” And it’s powerful, and I think to use that language is our gift to ourselves and to each other. So, I’m glad that y’all are feeling it in the body and want to get up out of your seat. And I actually would love to be at a performance where someone did that. That could be cute.

Jordan: Yes, and I would also like to introduce Whitney White, the director of What to Send Up When It Goes Down.

Whitney White: Hey. Hi.

Jordan: I am so happy that you’re able to join us.

Leticia: I feel like we have Destiny’s Child on Daughters of Lorraine. That’s how I feel right now.

Whitney: Come on, Destiny’s Child.

Leticia: We are just... we are talking to Aleshea about form and the content, and the artistic process, and also connecting our experiences as audience members to what appears to be the intentionality of the piece, which is to foster community, foster collaboration, and also hearing that that was reflected in the artistic process.

And so, Whitney, now that we have you on, we’d love to hear a bit about the musicality of the script. So, Aleshea was talking about creating this music, and then you coming on and bringing your own approach to the music and the choreography, and the movement of the piece. So, I’d just love to hear about how you, as a musician, as someone who knows music, how... that artistic process for you?

Whitney: I mean, it was a gift. I mean, I can’t say enough how shockingly inspiring it is to be in the presence of someone who is able to so purposefully orchestrate their intentions and desires and will on a page, and that’s what Aleshea does. Every play of hers has such a beautiful intentionality to it, and this, I feel like, was just theatricus because she had composed these beautiful songs.

And I just kept listening to her sing it and I remember before I met her in person, I got to see... she sent me a tape of her singing one of the songs, and some of the recordings, and it was so... it was like you know when you’re in the room with another Black person, and something wild happens, and you make eyes with them, and you know that you are not the only one having that experience? That’s what I felt when I got these tapes of her singing, because the way she manifested herself musically felt so in line with what I felt to the piece and it was just a joy. Because she wrote this music, and I just got to put it on bodies and experiment with who did it how, and how the rhythms of the bodies and the stomps would enhance what she’d already written and not even enhance, but work with.

So, it was a weird... that’s not a very common thing to have a playwright who’s thinking musically, rhythmically, sonically. She’s thinking already about crescendos, she’s thinking about peaks and valleys, and so if you’re a musical person, all you got to do is listen to what’s already there. And I feel like that’s what I had to do was just listen to what she was throwing down. She was throwing down so much beautiful information for me to pick up, you know?

Leticia: That is so beautiful, and I just want to say that Jordan and I are huge fans of your work, as well. We seen The Amen Corner. Brilliant. Amazing. So, thank you for joining—

Whitney: Thank you. I love that cast. I love that cast.

Leticia: I’m so glad they brought it back for a short engagement. It was brilliant and just what you did with James Baldwin’s text was really, really profound.

Whitney: But it’s funny. It’s like, being a director... first of all, thank you. Thank you for coming out. I love that cast. In my mind, if I could get the What to Send Up cast and The Amen Corner cast at the same party, then the Black gods would shower us in gold.

Jordan: Now that’s all I want.

Whitney: I know. Could you imagine? Because Amen Corner has the beautiful elders, and What to Send Up has all these young beautiful actors. It would just be the family cookout. But, I’d like to say, directing is a weird thing because when everything goes right, you’re like, “Oh, I can see my director’s intent.” But the reality is, when you have a James Baldwin and an Aleshea Harris, is again, it’s like if you just listen to what they’re trying to do and don’t mess it up, and bring your A game to it, then magic can start to happen.

And I feel so fortunate with both those pieces, these pieces, because again, being a Black woman, I feel so often that I’m going crazy, and my experience isn’t reflected on the world around me, and we live in an anti-Black society and our bodies are under siege. And these two writers have fortified me in a very emotionally challenging time, you know?

Leticia: Oh, absolutely. And one of the things that I really noticed when I seen What to Send Up When It Goes Down was this lineage, that may be intentional or not, of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls, right?

Whitney: Mm-hmm.

Leticia: And the beautiful blend of movement, of music, of dialogue, right? And I was just wondering if either one of you can speak about if that influenced the piece, and how Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem perhaps is another lens to engage with What to Send Up?

Aleshea: Yeah. I will say that I remember the first time that I read For Colored Girls as an undergrad. I was walking across campus at the University of Southern Mississippi, and had gotten ahold of this play. And y’all, remember how I was talking earlier about how sometimes you experience a piece of work, and it feels like it was written for you?

Leticia: Yes.

Jordan: Yes.

Aleshea: Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls felt like home. I was like, “Did I write this secretly in another universe?” My young self. Did I write... it just felt so familiar. It felt like home. So, absolutely, Ntozake Shange is a lighthouse and a beacon for this piece because what she did was give me permission to do what I did. And I think that that’s what our artistic... that’s what our heroes do, is they say, “This is a thing you can do. How will you do it in your way?” And so, absolutely, this idea of poetry in motion.

I did a lot of spoken word, which one might be able to feel inside of What to Send Up, but just understanding that I could take some of my approaches to spoken word, the attention that’s given to the sonic experience of the work, into creating this huge poem. It’s this epic... What to Send Up is an epic poem that I mean, one body could perform on stage.

It wouldn’t be as effective, but I really was coming at it through a lens that I was gifted by Ntozake Shange, who of course, shifts characters, shifts geography, and has these really smart ways of doing it through music, of course, through the language—I get to do that. I get to talk about time and point to time in ways that Ntozake did. But I found my own ways of doing that, and just also understanding, or trying to understand, what Ntozake understood so deeply: that the articulations of the body are content, how they articulate themselves. They are a signal to my people, and they are very powerful, as powerful as any word that I put on the page. So, I think that someone who’s a student of Ntozake, and of that play in particular, hopefully will find some gold and see, “Oh yes. This person was inspired by that tremendous, ancestor now, artist.” What do you think about all of that, Whitney?

Whitney: I love it. I mean, I think that’s also what attracted me to What to Send Up, because the poetry, I feel like poetry is a landscape that Black artists have really made their mark in, and I myself am not a poet in that way. And the way that Aleshea is using this language that moves both backwards and forwards in time in this ancestral circular way, is just very beautiful.

And For Colored Girls was definitely... I had my moment with her in high school, too. Although, I love what you said, Aleshea, when you come across a play you feel like it was meant for you. For me, that happened with Funnyhouse of a Negro. When I read that play—

Jordan: Yes. Talk about it.

Leticia: That’s Jordan’s play.

Whitney: —I was like, “Oh my God.” Just the way that like—

Leticia: You done activated Jordan.

Whitney: Okay. The way that Black female psychosis is delivered there, and also poetry in a different way. It was so beautiful, but I loved... I mean everything Aleshea says, I feel, and I think that had I... I’m very happy. In college, I was the green girl, in For Colored Girls

Leticia: Oh, I was the Lady in Yellow. Sorry to interrupt.

Whitney: Yes.

Leticia: Lady in Yellow here, whoop whoop.

Whitney: Oh my god. Whoop whoop. Well, yes. I love that for us, also. Aleshea and I, our next show, we’ll be performing that together. No, her poetry’s just off the chain. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading her other works, such as Is God Is, it’s the poetry that just gets louder and bolder and more and more lush every play she writes. So, it’s a wonderful journey. I highly recommend everyone out there listening to purchase Aleshea’s plays and experience them on the page, because it’s really a lesson in spoken word and how spoken word and theatre and Black rhythm can all triangulate to become something incredible.

Aleshea: That’s really sweet, Whitney. Thank you. I wanted to say also about Ntozake Shange, when we think about For Colored Girls alongside this play that, she really said, “Black girls and women, I see you.” And I think that I... and that sounds so simple but I mean we aren’t seen. We’re not acknowledged. We all know that in this call. The ways that folks seek to render us invisible. There you have to seek to do it, right? If you just ride it out, that’s what happens, and I think that it was similar for me was to say, I see you, Black folks. I see you, I hear you, and it matters. So, yeah.

Whitney: Yeah, and I also see a link between your intention of both having mourning and celebration in What to Send Up, right?

Aleshea: Mm-hmm.

Whitney: So, creating this space where the joy, the sadness, the grief, the community, the happiness that exists within it, that was also in For Colored Girls, right?

Aleshea: Mm-hmm.

Whitney: These things can coexist at the same time, which I also just really love about the piece.

Jordan: Yeah. And that in the process of... yeah. I love that, Leticia, of... it’s such a multitude of emotions. It’s a multitude of feelings. It’s the ways that violence can impede Black social life but there’s also the community that can help you grieve and can help you heal from within that. And I think in terms of revisiting this work, in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, and then last year we had the summer of the Anti-racist Book List. All of these different things but in many ways it’s both new context and old context, right, as we see in What to Send Up. How you paint the cycles of history that keep coming up over and over again. But what was it like; the process of revisiting this, revising this, and rediscovering within What to Send Up When It Goes Down?

Aleshea: Go ahead, Whitney.

Whitney: I think, there was an interesting moment where Aleshea and I had a call during quarantine. We also made a short film and video that was called “Resilience” that was meant to inspire Black people. And I remember right when the pandemic happened, I believe we had a call, correct me, in which we were like oh maybe... I can’t remember what we talked about, but I was like, “Oh, maybe What to Send Up is not going to be the topic that needs to be dealt with.” And then of course, even in a pandemic, in which thousands and millions of people are dying, we had Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And brother and sister after brother and sister lose their lives, and in a weird way, it’s just... it was so surreal, and I was like, “Okay. We have a reason to circle up, now and always.”

And just... I guess I really realized the brilliance of what Aleshea did, because she made a container with which we can grieve and celebrate for all time. And I guess I realized that it’s always going to be something that we’re going to need, because even if for some magical reason, this anti-Black society stops murdering us, we always will have our past names, and so I guess in reviving it in this time there’s this pressure, I had a different kind of sadness, but also a different reason to just find joy. We have to keep celebrating ourselves and lifting our names up, so it was doubling down. If any of that makes sense.

Leticia: Yeah.

Aleshea: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I will say that the question came up for me about altering, revising the language, and adding really specific language about this ongoing global pandemic moment that we are experiencing. But it’s already there. There’s already language about... if anything’s bad, Black folks are experiencing it worse, so naturally our community was hit especially hard because of so many disparities, which all of course lead to anti-Blackness.

And so, the language is already in the play, about if you haven’t received proper medical care, there’s a moment where audience members can self-identify with that prompt. And so, it’s very much baked into the DNA of the play that we don’t receive the care that we should, and that our deaths don’t hold the... people don’t have the kind of emotional response to our deaths that they do to others. So, I didn’t feel like it was necessary to try and point in that way. I felt like it was already there. There was no revision required.

But yeah, it was really interesting to be back in space and be in rehearsal with Black folks, and I think we had this moment as a team, as a community, around this piece of deep reengagement and re-upping in a way, right? We hadn’t seen each other in a while. We had these new experiences of anti-Blackness to now bring into the room and this different level of fear. So, it was quite the challenge to come back and serve our folks, and ourselves, through the remounting of the piece.

Leticia: Yeah. I agree that What to Send Up is so timeless, right? Even now as I sit here and talk with both of you, I want to be back in that theatre, right? And be back in that community, right? With the brilliant actors and actresses who create this intimacy with Black audiences that I felt, that Jordan felt.

Jordan: Mm-hmm.

Leticia: And before we wrap up, we want to zoom out a bit and ask you both about theatre broadly. So, I want to ask: Why is theatre one of the many mediums you choose to create in? What does theatre offer us?

Whitney: Oh god. I just feel like you can’t beat being in the real time and space with a group of people and having your heartbeat and breath link up. That sounds so fruitcake-y, but there’s nothing like it. I love cinema, I love television, I love taking in media in different forms, but as an audience member myself, the feeling I have when something transformational happens and I’m with two hundred other people is like church. And I feel like I remember things more. I know for myself, even as an artist, when I go to something live, versus watching something recorded, it imprints itself on me differently. I just feel that way.

Aleshea: Yeah. I agree. There’s something about theatre as a living art, as a thing, as a work that’s constantly being sculpted in front of us, because I can write the script, Whitney will give the direction, but the players, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. And the audience members—

Whitney: Okay.

Aleshea: —who want to hop out of their seat, they’re going to do that. They might do that, and so there’s something about bearing witness to what is—in real time—to what is a culmination of countless hours of thought and work.

Just the number of decisions it takes to arrive at a script. Sometimes I think about that. I’m like, “Aleshea, you literally... this is tens of thousands if not more, just decisions that you had to make, to arrive here.” And then Whitney, how many decisions does it take for her? For us to arrive at the piece? It just represents such labor, and when I’m bearing witness, especially to the labor of my folks, and it’s an act of love. There’s nothing like it.

And I think it’s also a great... there’s a lot of power in being able to upload ideas, upload myths into people’s brains in real time, and it’s something that I take... I have a lot of fun with, but also take quite seriously. It’s a tremendous opportunity. And as Whitney said, without any filter of a screen, just there in the same room, breathing the same room, all of our bodies. It’s extraordinary, and I always say, I’m a theatre person ‘til they put me in the ground. I feel like I was brought here to be a part of this art form.

Jordan: Absolutely. We both feel the exact same way. I feel that. I’m a theatre nerd, I’ll always be a theatre nerd, but also not taking for granted—especially because live performance was suspended for so long—about that shared energy. The insurgency of theatre is always going to remain number one as a medium, and I think the importance of the medium for this story is seeing it happen in real time, in front of your face, right?

It’s about the confrontation of that moment, but also the collectivity of those moments as well, that’s created in What to Send Up. And Leticia and I talk about this all the time. Theatre is a malleable form. It lives, it continues to live and breathe in many different ways, and so we see this with What to Send Up When It Goes Down, a story that can work for so many contexts, so many times, so many different theatres, so many different moments. But just both the beauty and the tragedy, I think, of anti-Blackness, but also of Blackness, right? The beauty of Blackness is that we do have to contend with all of these different things, and yet... you know?

So, thank you both for joining us. I cannot express to you both enough how much your work, both in this piece but also in your individual projects, has shaped our academic and creative trajectories as Black theatre critics and scholars and artists. So, thank you so much for lending your time to this podcast, but also for gifting us with your talents in the theatre world. We are thrilled to continue to support your work, and follow it, and we are so happy that we have y’all in the world.

Whitney: Oh. Ladies.

Aleshea: Thank you so much, Jordan and Leticia. We, I think, are thrilled. I’ll speak for both of us a little bit. We are thrilled that y’all are in the world. We really need discourse around our work that’s coming from Black people. From Black women.

Whitney: Yes.

Aleshea: And the level of engagement, the level of love that you’ve shown us, we so deeply... I’ll go back to speaking to myself. I so deeply appreciate, and I am so grateful for the invitation to be on your podcast. So, thank you.

Whitney: And I agree, Aleshea. I’m honored. When you speak for me, I feel the same way. So, thank you.

Leticia: And we want to thank you both for the support. Twitter fingers be typing fast and you’ve both been very supportive of our podcast. So, thank you so much.

Jordan: And thank you everyone for listening to Daughters of Lorraine. We are so happy that we’re going to be back—but not until the spring. This was just a taste of what is to come in our season three of our podcast. So, please stay tuned for that. And if you are in the New York area, please go see Playwrights Horizons’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down. I believe that there are tickets specifically available for people who identify as Black. Is that correct?

Whitney: Yes.

Jordan: I’m correct? Right.

Whitney: Yes. And also, you know—

Jordan: Right, and so—

Whitney: —how up at the door. I feel like there’s always a way. So, just come to the theatre. Come see the show.

Aleshea: Yeah, but definitely, even though it’s showing that it’s sold out, there are tickets for Black people. They have tickets set aside for you all, and there’s a code which you can access by going on Playwrights Horizons social media that is for twenty-five dollar tickets for Black people. So, nevermind what it says on the site. When you enter the code, you will be able to buy tickets.

Jordan: Great, yes. Please go see it. If this episode and our previous episode have not shown you, you do not want to miss this incredible performance. Thank you again to Aleshea and Whitney for joining us, and thank you all for continuing to support Daughters of Lorraine. We truly appreciate it. All right, onward.

Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley.

Jordan: And Jordan Ealey.

Leticia: Daughters of Lorraine will return in full force in spring 2022 for an exciting third season. We have so much in store for you all, that you definitely will not want to miss. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter at dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at daughtersoflorraine@gmail.com for further contact.

The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and howlround.com. If you’re looking for the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify, you will want to search and subscribe to HowlRound Podcast.

Thoughts from the curators

Hosted by two doctoral theatre students, Jordan Ealey and Leticia Ridley, Daughters' of Lorraine Podcast features reviews of Black theatre productions (mainly in the DC/Baltimore area), current national conversations around, within, and about Black theatre, academic discussions concerning Black theatre, recommendations on Black theatre scripts, and interviews with Black theatre artists. This podcast centers and privileges the narratives of Black theatremakers, scholars, and audiences while also underscoring the need for understanding the influence of Black theatre on the American theatre landscape.

Daughters of Lorraine Podcast

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