Theater review by Helen Shaw
[Note: This is a review of the 2018 production of What to Send Up When It Goes Down at A.R.T./New York Theatres. The show is returning for an encore run in 2021 as part of Playwrights Horizons' commendable Redux Series, with nearly all of the 2018 cast.]
There are two concentric parts to Aleshea Harris’s part-ceremony, part-play What to Send Up When It Goes Down. In the show’s outer ring, conducted both before and after the core performance, the audience is led through a group activity focused on solidarity and witnessing that is described as “a ritual first and foremost for black people.” (The script asks that the show be dedicated to a person killed recently by racist violence.) Led by actor Kambi Gathesha, we embark on some community work: We pass a talking rock around a participation circle; we share a primal shout. For some, this will be nourishing, even if the therapy dynamic is an awkward fit with its theatrical surrounding. You don’t usually pay for church.
The center of the night, however, is Harris’s vivid choreopoem, an intertwined series of short scenes that include song, dance and absurdist microplays. It’s as though Harris had taken her artistic forebear’s Ntozake Shange’s loose-woven theatrical fabric and stretched into something tighter and crisper, capable of resounding like a struck drumhead. The performers invoke the ‘it’ that has gone down: “You know what I mean by ‘it,’ right? / ‘It’ equals some terrible thing. / Some “bang-bang” thing / Some wrong color thing. The shit that don’t stop.” The members of the ensemble, thrumming with electricity, perform quick burlesque exchanges or drop suddenly into a percussive communal dance. The comedy is broad, but it works because director Whitney White keeps it fierce and fast: Ugo Chukwu, for instance, plays an irritating white woman called Miss by wearing white gloves and whining “Not my problem, nor my fault,” while making Beau Thom carry him around like a horse. The beautiful bits are ferocious too. Denise Manning sings deep, thrilling spirituals while beating out a rhythm on her own body; at the performance I attended, her voice broke with emotion, and the others in the group murmured supportively. This palpable connection among the performers outweighed all the overt gestures of the audience-participation section. In that one improvised moment, we felt both the weight of the burden and the force of the lifting up.
A.R.T./New York Theatres (Off Broadway). By Aleshea Harris. Directed by Whitney White. With ensemble cast. 1hr 40mins. No intermission.