Aleshea Harris’ “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” isn’t a traditional play, but audiences shouldn’t come away with the mistaken impression that the show — a play, a ritual, a pageant and a celebration all in one — isn’t carefully constructed and structured.
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“It’s something that happens a lot with Black theater and with Black art, especially with this kind of art which blurs a line between ritual and theater,” said Harris (pictured, above right), appearing on the new episode of Variety‘s “Stagecraft” with the production’s director, Whitney White (pictured, above left). “There’s a way that it feels like it was written for the people that did it, or maybe I listened to them have a conversation and jotted it down, but that’s absolutely not the case. I sat down and I created a structure for this piece. I crafted this entire thing. … I do think that people see it and they think, ‘Oh, they improvised those songs.’ No, I wrote those songs. I placed them inside of the play. It’s all quite intentional and rigorous.”
White added that for her, the play has the feel and the structure of a piece of music. “A lot of people say that about plays, but they don’t really mean it,” she said. The first time she read “What to Send Up,” she explained, “it was like a conductor was conducting this orchestra of Black experience, and the instruments are different things in the Black collective: the palate of grief, the palate of worship, the palate of witnessing cyclical violence, the palate of theater-making in and of itself.”
Following an Off Broadway engagement in 2018, “What to Send Up” is now back in New York for runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (through July 11) and then Playwrights Horizons (in the fall). As with every production of the show, creators and producers emphasize it’s a theater event made first and foremost for Black people.
“I cannot assume that my people know that they are welcome,” Harris said. “I have to say to them, ‘You are welcome and this is for you,’ because oftentimes it is not. … We’re talking about spaces of education, we’re talking about work spaces, we’re talking about all kind of public spaces. We’re certainly talking about the theater.”
But both Harris and White were quick to note that “What to Send Up” isn’t only for Black audiences. “The show is made with Black people in mind, but this is a healing tool for all of us,” White said. “Don’t let yourself off the hook!”
To hear the full conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.
[Pictured: Whitney White and Aleshea Harris]