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Aleshea Harris’s Ritual for the Living

My ear often picks up faint notes of a productive anxiety humming beneath contemporary plays. The energy doesn’t come with tidy stories that end at the lip of the stage—however moving or fleetly organized—but with works that have a restless experimentalism aimed not at strangeness for its own sake but at a deeper connection with drama’s oldest problems: people and places, the confusions of society and time. Our best playwrights are attempting a kind of ressourcement, trying to make theatre new by reaching back to its old, mysterious, ceremonial roots.

That daunting aspiration is at work in Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” presented by BAM and Playwrights Horizons in association with the Movement Theatre Company. (The show is now at BAM Fisher, and will be staged at Playwrights Horizons this fall.) Harris calls it “A play. A pageant. A ritual. A homegoing celebration.” She began writing the play in 2014, in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, and has staged it several times, as a way of memorializing the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police and other awful actors. In an introductory note to the work, Harris says that she “will always insist that this piece is a real ritual. The players aren’t pretending to be carrying out a ritual. They are in it. We are sincerely gathered to honor those who’ve been taken too soon.”

That “gathering” starts before the show formally begins. The audience waits in a small vestibule, surrounded by photographs of the dead. Some of them we all recognize by now—Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. The photos are tinted magenta, yellow, and blue, and look like the stained-glass windows in a church. The simplicity of the colors paints a grim picture: these deaths, so rote in their repetition, are somehow primary to our understanding of the world as we’ve built it, fatally basic in tone as well as pattern. On a table in the vestibule sits Harris’s note, which uses typography and spacing expressionistically, in order to portray her lasting anger over Martin. Before she wrote plays, Harris was a spoken-word performer, and her voicings, in prose and on the stage, bear the mark of this training. Some of her lines are so rhythmically precise you can almost hear them:

I thought, “O, they will punish his killer This is easy The boy had no weapons He was stalked This is easy They will punish his killer—”

They did not.
And what’s more
         what’s maddening
         what’s re-traumatizing
t h e b o y w a s b e i n g b l a m e d
                                    f o r b e i n g f o l l o w e d a n d s h o t

The moment of waiting creates a kind of threshold between the outer world, where these deaths keep happening, and the darkened theatre. It also presents the unavoidable problems inherent in trying to make those two spaces coeval. On the evening that I went, people stood around chatting, creating a pleasant cocktail-party din. We were surrounded by photographs of real lost people, with grieving families. I knew some of their names, but most of them were just faces to me, their deaths made implicit by their proximity to the others. We were ostensibly there to honor these people, but I couldn’t help wondering whether we had the right to make such artistic and cathartic and symbolic use of them. Did their families know that they were there with us? Would their families feel comfortable hanging out at BAM, looking up sadly, with the rest of us, at the faces of their brothers or sisters or sons or daughters?

The more current art tries to mine the deaths of Black people for glints of the epiphanic, the more I find myself asking some variation of this question. This spring, I visited the New Museum’s show “Grief and Grievance,” conceived by the legendary Black curator Okwui Enwezor, which took as its theme “the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss” in Black communities, as well as the baseless grievances that are hallmarks of white-supremacist rhetorical style. In one room was a sculpture: a pair of basketball sneakers and a microphone—shades of hip-hop, and of rogue street-side political speech—hanging from an elaborate noose wrought from electrical cables. I didn’t care to look at it for long.

Harris and her performers maintain that “What to Send Up” was made, and is performed, for Black audiences. White people are welcome, but they are secondary. As one of the players says, “Let me be clear: this ritual is first and foremost for Black people. . . . We welcome you but this piece was created and is expressed with Black folks in mind.” That preamble brings itself into question: if it were totally true, nobody would need to say it. But the idea—whom the work is for; whose rage it means to express and whose solace it means to bring about—opens a kind of two-way channel between the living and the dead. The play isn’t just a memorial but also a site of soothing; its “ritual” is an almost practical way to “send up” the ungovernable emotions that emerge when, inevitably, another death “goes down.” It’s for the living even more than for the dead. In this way, “What to Send Up” ingeniously echoes and extends the methods of public art, that recent battleground of culture-war conjecture and iconoclastic action. Harris turns theatre into a monument, ephemeral but real, to ongoing pain. You can’t tear down a statue that never shows up outside.

The most striking visual aspect of the show, which is directed by Whitney White and designed with harrowing simplicity by Yu-Hsuan Chen, is a large white circle chalked onto the black floor. The mark looks solid but also has jagged, improvisatory edges, like one of the painter Barnett Newman’s vertical lines. Throughout the show, the circle’s border gets strewn with what looks like confetti, and it is crossed, over and over, at interesting angles, by the players. It serves as a guide for the slightly larger circle that the audience makes, when, in an early participatory moment, each attendee is asked to offer his or her thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and urged to speak the name of one of the honored dead.

The players—Alana Raquel Bowers, Rachel Christopher, Ugo Chukwu, Kalyne Coleman, Denise Manning, Javon Q. Minter, and Beau Thom—are all electric, improbably loose and fun, given the nearly religious seriousness of their task. Later, when they start a looping, recursive cycle of scripted material, the circle’s outskirts are referred to as the “margins,” where a Black character dare not tread, for fear of falling out of the netting of narrative and ceasing, forever, to exist.

Harris is a budding master of theatre’s hidden tropes and structural quirks. Although the shape and the feeling of the highly kinetic, satisfyingly rageful sketches that make up the main section of “What to Send Up” call to mind such experimentalists as the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, they are finessed into a form that seems to comment on, and question, the traditional three-act play. There’s Christopher, as a disgruntled domestic worker—her name is MADE, not Maid—and Chukwu, as the oblivious white boss lady who insists that her hands are “clean,” and whose kryptonite is cross-racial intimacy. There’s Manning, as a woman who has snatched a white co-worker’s mouth off his face and stuffed it into her purse. The sketches are punctuated by dance numbers, often the kind of stepping made famous by Black fraternities and sororities. They have the antic, furious energy of classic “Looney Tunes” gags and the tart satire of the nineties sketch-comedy show “In Living Color.”

“What to Send Up” is maudlin one moment and slapstick the next, at all points taking full advantage of its endangered medium. Whether drama can reacquaint street and stage, art and democracy, entertainment and death, will depend on artists like Harris, who are willing—sometimes even discomfitingly so—to get close, to take on the news, and to sculpt it into the shape of a heart. ♦

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