“What to Send Up When It Goes Down’’ will — or at least should — rock you to your core.
This electric, uncompromising, and powerfully moving work by Aleshea Harris, directed by Whitney White, casts a light on racialized violence and its victims that is both searing and illuminating.
Harris has created a play that leaps across categories, registering as part theater piece and part ritual of mourning, remembrance, and resolve. After being staged last week at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall, “What to Send Up’’ will be presented again Wednesday through Sunday by the American Repertory Theater at The Ex in Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center.
Crucial to realizing the playwright’s vision is a flat-out extraordinary ensemble of eight actors from The Movement Theatre Company: Rachel Christopher, Kambi Gathesha, Alana Raquel Bowers, Nemuna Ceesay, Beau Thom, Ugo Chukwu, Javon Q. Minter, and Denise Manning. Singly and together, they give dramatic and kinetic shape to “What to Send Up’s’’ blend of elegy, indictment, and call to action.
With its poetically allusive style, its medley of disparate voices, and its use of physical movement to exceptionally expressive effect, “What to Send Up’’ is at times reminiscent of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,’’ Ntozake Shange’s landmark 1975 “choreopoem.’’ But “What to Send Up’’ is more outer-directed, fashioned as a direct response to a crisis that is spelled out at the start: studies showing that African-Americans are more than twice as likely as white people to be killed by police.
From that grim statistic — what one of the play’s characters describes as “the [expletive] that keeps happening’’ — Harris skillfully constructs a kaleidoscopic series of monologues, dialogues, and scorchingly satirical sketches that delineate the forces in the surrounding white culture that have done so much to distort and sometimes destroy black lives.
At Hibernian Hall, reminders of those lost lives lined the walls of a gallery adjoining the playing space, where spectators gathered before the production: 200 photographs of African-Americans, all of them dead, most of them young, many of them slain by police.
“What to Send Up’’ begins with the audience standing in a circle, as spectators are asked to step forward if they have experienced or witnessed racism firsthand. At the performance I attended, we were asked to say the name of Yusuf Hawkins — ambushed and shot to death in 1989 by a mob of white youths in Brooklyn —16 times, once for every year Hawkins was alive.
There are several other elements to the audience-participation portion of “What to Send Up,’’ such as an invitation to write notes of support to “a black person living in an anti-black society.’’ The cumulative effect of drawing the audience into these rituals is to underscore the prevalence and pain of everyday racism, to possibly establish a sense of solidarity among the spectators — and to send a clear message that “What to Send Up’’ is not meant to be passively experienced.
Not that passivity is really possible once the cast of eight gets to work. They generate too much voltage for that.
Bowers (excellent) delivers a blistering monologue in which her character notes that white approbation is conferred only “when I wear the flavor of Blackness you like . . . Blackness that doesn’t disrupt brunch or make you question the things your privilege steals and steals from me.’’ Christopher delivers a harrowing portrayal of a housekeeper who repeatedly responds through gritted teeth to her condescendingly nosy and entitled white boss that “I don’t have any kids’’ until she finally explodes into a shattering aria of grief and fury, and we learn the reason for her childlessness.
There are sequences about how being black can make you the butt of jokes in school, how racism by older whites is excused because they were “from a different time,’’ how just walking down the street in a white neighborhood requires a black person to calibrate gait and demeanor.
A defiant insistence on carving out a place for humor and catharsis in the face of crisis is a part of "What To Send Up,'' as are playwright Harris’s forays into surrealism. One character matter-of-factly describes how, after a co-worker told her he “doesn’t see race,’’ she “politely leaned forward in my chair and took his mouth off his face,’’ put it in her purse, and left.
Perhaps the most haunting figure onstage is a young man, played by Minter. After yet another black youth was shot, he tells us, he opted to mutilate himself as a form of concealment. Then he explains his action in a bit of reasoning that cracks the heart: “I figure if I already look dead, there ain’t nothing for them to kill.'’
WHAT TO SEND UP WHEN IT GOES DOWN
Written by Aleshea Harris. Directed by Whitney White. Production by The Movement Theatre Company. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At The Ex, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Nov. 20-24. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.