Tuesday, July 6, 2021

"What to Send Up When It Goes Down" at Pillsbury House Theatre (outdoors)

Pillsbury House Theater returns to live theater with the play What to Send Up When It Goes Down by playwright Aleshea Harris (who also wrote the powerful revenge fantasy Is God Is produced by Mixed Blood Theatre a few years ago). Though written in 2019, this play could not be more relevant to this time and place. The time: coming out of a tumultuous year-plus that saw a devastating global pandemic, the continued murder of Black people by police that led to a racial reckoning, and an attempted violent overthrow of our government by white supremacists. The place: the parking lot outside Pillsbury House Theatre in south Minneapolis, just a few blocks from where George Floyd was murdered just over a year ago. This play was created by Black people for Black people as a safe space to gather, release, mourn, and celebrate the experience of being Black in America. Described as "part ritual and part theatrical experience," it's one of those rare plays that transcends theater to become an experience of real connection and communion with each other and what's going on in the world around us. This is the kind of profound, relevant, truly meaningful theater that I expected to come out of this last year, and I hope it continues.

At showtime, the audience is led behind the curtain of quilts (by the Million Artist Movement) into the performance space in the parking lot* next to the theater and seated (bring your own chair) on one side of a circle painted on the pavement with a circular platform in the center. Ensemble member Aimee K. Bryant leads us through a couple of opening activities (yes, there is participation, but it's not too scary or difficult). There is the ritual pouring out of water, speaking of words, singing of songs, sharing of feelings, and specific placement of objects. Then the performance part of the play begins, with musical numbers (accompanied by the awesome DJ Queen Drea) and short dramatic or poetic scenes, ranging from ridiculous to tragic. It feels personal as the ensemble (also including Alexis Camille, Ryan Colbert, JuCoby Johnson, Rajané Katurah, Darrick Mosley, and Mikell Sapp) refer to themselves by their real names. Everyone in the cast is vulnerable and present and real, and director Signe V. Harriday allows the emotions and experiences to take center stage while the piece flows seamlessly from one segment to the next.

In fact everything about this play feels personal, and real, as we're seated together in the full daylight having just shared our names, breathing together within shouting distance of where George Floyd lost his breath, nowhere to hide from the realities conveyed. The pandemic circumstances worked out well here; this experience would not have the same affect inside a darkened theater. Experiencing this as a non-Black person, I can't even imagine what it would be like to experience this ritual/play as a Black person, and I won't even try to speak to that. This work wasn't created for me, and I'm just grateful to have been able to witness it. I found it to be incredibly powerful, sobering, emotional, and perhaps even a bit hopeful. I don't know that life in America is any better for Black people today than it was a year ago, but there does seem to be a greater global awareness of the racial inequities, discrimination, and violence that Black Americans have always been aware of. And perhaps that's a place where progress and healing and restitution can begin.

I believe that theater can change the world, and What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a fine example of when theater can be a tool for healing, for processing events and emotions, for the healthy expression of rage, for engendering empathy with the "other," for coming together as one. It officially opens this week and plays Thursdays through Sundays for the next two weekends, with audience limited to 50 people.

George Floyd Square at 38th and Chicago
(photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram)