This is a production that will be outside of many people’s immediate comfort zones, and that’s a good thing. I say immediate because the cast welcomes everybody who comes to this ritual/pageant/production, but makes it most respectfully clear that while non-blacks are indeed welcome, this show is not catering to them in any way. This is a piece that is for and about black people and intended as a safe space for them to examine and discuss and scream and try to cope with the thousands of insults—from everyday indignities to the ultimate insult of death—that the non-black world in America serves up daily, even if unconsciously at times.
“So, go to this show. Go with an open mind and an open heart and quiet mouth and ego and be prepared to be granted a look into the reality of black lives. It will make a difference in how you see.”
But as you listen, and take part in the introductory community participation, and then watch the extremely talented group of actors confront the realities they live with daily, you understand that your part is to learn and reflect and mourn, and above all, be quiet and not make it about yourself.
Perhaps the most jarring moment comes at the end when the audience is separated and the black people stay in the theatre with the actors and the non-black portion of the audience is ushered into the education room again. It’s almost a visceral pain to realize one is not wanted, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of being black in a country that has made it clear in so many formal policies and unspoken “traditions” that black people aren’t wanted. For a moment, it seems as if there is a divide that can’t be bridged, but upon reflection and the invitation by the staff to become allies in full, you feel grateful that the black people have this private catharsis with the only people who can really understand. They don’t need our secondary pain and understanding; at this point, it’s a burden.
But before that, at the start of the ritual, the audience is ushered into the education room to have the expectations of the evening laid out and to hear for whom the experience is in honor of that night. You see, the walls of the room are covered with photographs of dead black boys and girls and men and women–many killed by law enforcement. You are gifted a black satin ribbon to wear in silent memory. Then you are escorted to the theatre and instructed to stand in a big circle, or given the size of the crowd—two concentric rings. The actors are among us and they lead the community in some exercises to start the process.
Following that are a series of vignettes highlighting the coruscating nature of privilege, particularly as wielded by those who don’t see their privilege and/or can’t/won’t admit it exists. One thing this show underscores very well is how difficult it is to look at racism (even the seemingly positive attitudes of those who say things such as, “I don’t see color,” “but I have friends who are people of color,” etc.) and admit that privilege exists, erects barriers and doesn’t allow for true diversity, and damages our collective existence. When one of the actors, during the circle participation, mentioned the line about “I don’t see color,” is was instructive to see who in the audience glanced away or found their shoes fascinating. It was a gentle wake-up call.
Another thing this show does well it make it plain it doesn’t want well-meaning do-gooders or progressives to try to “fix” things—it wants people to sit with the anger, fear, helplessness, watchfulness, distrust, etc. As they respectfully and kindly made clear at the end of the show, the black community isn’t looking for saviors, particularly white saviors, but the right to self-determination and full participation. This show is the creative team’s way of growing that conversation.
Aleshea Harris, the playwright; created a space of uncluttered words and powerful movement to illuminate some stark realities, in a very safe setting, of the daily wrongs inflicted on black lives. I found it interesting that in the same week, I saw two productions (the other was ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ at Baltimore Center Stage) that actually made the black experience the entireness of the work; and both works are exquisitely produced. And both are uncomfortable in the sense that even though you are invited in, you feel like an interloper. It’s an interesting spot from which to reflect on these matters.
The cast is composed of Alana Raquel Bowers, Nemuna Ceesay, Rachel Christopher, Ugo Chukwu, Kambi Gathesha, Denise Manning, Javon Q. Minter, and Beau Thom. They are seamless together; individually they showcase aspects of black people’s lives, but when they come together as a group—not homogenous by any means, but fitting together as a community—they are warrior-fierce and determined.
Whitney White directs; one can only imagine the work it took to dig into such incendiary, painful, raw material and find a path past the strongest initial emotions to the longer, sustaining ones.
So, go to this show. Go with an open mind and an open heart and quiet mouth and ego and be prepared to be granted a look into the reality of black lives. It will make a difference in how you see.
Running Time: Ninety to 100 minutes with no intermission.
“what to send up when it goes down” by The Movement Theatre Company at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.