Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Pillsbury is back with a live production searingly connected to last year's historic events that took place just three blocks down Chicago Avenue, the spot where George Floyd was murdered. What to Send Up When It Goes Down, by Aleshea Harris, was first staged in 2016 at Occidental College, long before George Floyd became known to the world. A 2018 Off-Broadway production drew praise, followed by mountings in Cambridge, Washington D.C., and a return Off-Broadway production just last month. Now it is scorching earthor, precisely, the parking lot next to Pillsbury Housein Minneapolis.
Harris describes What to Send Up When It Goes Down as a blend of play, pageant and ritual. It comes with instructions to draw from the freshest source of pain inflicted on the community where it is staged, specifically of a Black life snuffed out for the crime of being Black in a society framed from its inception on white supremacy. In 2016, Harris told the Huffington Post: "It's a piece that is, ideally, a tool that communities can access when they're in crisis after someone has been killed ... Every oppressed population, every marginalized population needs tools for coping, and I hope that this can be one for Black people." In Minnesota, though there are more recent instances of Black people killed by police, the theater's proximity to Cup Foods and the intersection of Chicago and 38th Street that has been christened George Floyd Square, draws all involved to make that paramount connection.
The playwright and the producers unabashedly claim this work as a play for African Americans. That is clearly stated in promotions for the play and at the onset of the performance. All are welcome, we are told, but white people and other non-Black audience members are asked to be respectful and to appreciate the show through the lens of those for whom it is intended. The performance I attended was at close to capacity, which is fifty people, and fewer than a fourth of those were Black, but that made no difference. This is theater lovingly made for them, and though the rest of the audience is made to feel comfortable and welcome to fully participate, we understood that on this occasion we are the outsiders.
Lest you be misled, the play zeros in on Black pain, but it also provides hefty helpings of Black joy. At turns What to Send Up When It Goes Down emits sorrow, frustration, anger, laughter, wisdom and hope. It does this through chants, satiric sketches, poetry, song and movement.
The show begins outside the playing area, in the street side of the parking lot screened off by panels of quilts comprising community-created art. Two cast members announce the rate of Black people killed by police, relative to white people, the rate of Black people incarcerated relative to white people, and other grim statistics. With this tone set, we are welcomed in, carrying our folding chairs to designated spaces facing a raised platform encircled by rings painted on the pavement, designed by visual artist Seitu Jones. The seven cast members step up, introduce themselveseach actor uses their own name throughout the playand then invite audience members to each share our names. We ritually call out the name George Floyd. There are more facts about conditions of Black America, activities for the audience to share our feelings about these, form a collective scream. We are taught a song, "Sun Come Up," that expresses love and gratitude to balance the anguish that precedes it.
The more ritualistic, participatory portion of the play shifts, winding back and forth among five theater pieces: Aimee K. Bryant and Rajané Katurah primp in front of a ladies room mirror, laughingly regaling each other about the foibles of white men; Alexis Camille circles the stage in desperation, declaiming the walls that keep her generous love from being received or valued; Derrick Mosley coaches incorrigible Mikell Sapp on avoiding the wrath of white folks (a sample: "Don't walk down the streetespecially not like that." "Like what?" "You knowbrazenly!"); JuCoby Johnson circles the stage with growing paranoia, though perhaps it is not paranoia but acute sensitivity to his reality; and a series of scathing sketches cast Mikell Sapp as a southern belle white woman, Derick Mosley as the eager to please her Black servant, and Rajané Katurah as a sardonic Black housemaid, all played in high camp with outrageous costuming from Kathy Kohl.
Interlaced throughout, Ryan Colbert issues pronouncements and rhythms, and Queen Drea sends out snatches of music and sound effects from the back of the stage. The cast perform, individually and as an ensemble, with great power and grace. The sense is that they are exposing their true selves, a risk they can take because, even though the majority of the audience is white, "What to Send Up When It Goes Down" is expressly for Black people. We could not ask for more generous performances.
Signe V. Harriday, newly named artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre, directs this production to fortify that power and moderate it with the grace notes written into the play. The changes in mood, temp, and from sketch to sketch are seamlessly interwoven, so that at nearly two hours without intermission, the play does not ever drag, and is compelling throughout.
The morning after I saw What to Send Up When It Goes Down I had the great pleasure of being a Harambee guest reader at a Freedom School site in Saint Paul. Freedom School is a summer learning program created by the Children's Defense Fund that aims to build self-awareness, confidence, resilience and joy in Black students. The Harambee is their daily morning assembly, full of rituals and pageantry. My reading was preceded by a song of praise set to box beats and chants of affirmation. About 150 students, kindergarten through middle school, were assembled in the gym as I read a children's book set in the last days of the Negro baseball leagues. Afterwards, the students broke out in a choral expression of thanks. More affirmations of group capacity and recognition of individual gifts, punctuated by dancing, followed before the group dispersed for the day into classroom units.
What a happy, positive place for Black children, who too often suffer through school, to blossom and learn. The Freedom School teachers draw upon the same internal and communal energy as the cast of What to Send Up When It All Comes Down, creating safe and fertile spaces, one for Black adult audiences, the other for Black school children. What to Send Up When It All Comes Down is powerful theater for all, and perhaps works as a Harambee for its Black audience members.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down runs through July 18, 2021, at the Pillsbury House Theatre parking lot, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $24.00. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own folding chairs. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org. Calls for ticket sales will not be answered starting 30 minutes before curtain time.
Playwright: Aleshea Harris; Director: Signe V. Harriday; Composer: Queen Drea; Set Design: Seitu Jones; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Sound Engineer: Maje Adams; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; House Technician: Katie Deutsch; Covid Safety Officer: Sterling Miller; Production Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Stage Manager: Lyndsey P. Harter; Assistant Stage Manage: Kenji Shoemaker; Producers: Faye M. Price and No?l Raymond
Cast: Aimee K. Bryant, Alexis Camille, Ryan Colbert, JuCoby Johnson, Rajané Katurah, Derick Mosley, Mikell Sapp.