Just blocks from where George Floyd was killed, performers and audience members gathered Wednesday evening in the parking lot of Pillsbury House Theatre to let out a long, primal scream.
The sound layers grief on top of harmony, pain on top of beauty. And it carries, through the firecrackers in the alleys, into the streets, into houses and into the deep parts of our bodies and psyches where trauma sleeps.
The shout wakes up that history, which, sometimes, is not history at all.
The primal release is but one potent feature of "What to Send Up When It Goes Down," Aleshea Harris' ritual-cum-play now making its regional premiere in Minneapolis. Harris' theatrical 2018 piece is unusual for many reasons, not least because of its bravery and courage. A 90-minute interactive work about Black trauma, it combines songs and spoken word with skits and a musical soundscape to dramatize a people coming through degradation with genius and grace.
Imagine a jazz band where the soloists pull from the history of Black Americans, playing pain and joy, bondage and freedom. There's spirituality and witness. The names of dead are called out and libations are poured in their honor. There are suggestions of obvious violence, including mouthed gunshots, but also the other kind that happens with the reduction of humanity to stereotypes, to tropes and caricatures.
Prayers are sent up to honor those who have perished not just because of the brutalization of dark bodies, as actor Aimee K. Bryant says, but because of an idea that is never named. Even something as simple as the ritual saying of names of those who have perished — names such as Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile that are elicited from the audience — can gut an auditor.
"What to Send Up" marks the first show directed at Pillsbury House by Signe Harriday, who a week earlier officially succeeded Faye Price as the company's new leader. It marks both a continuation of Price's legacy, and a renewed focus on the art that has earned the company its gutbucket reputation.
In the parking lot, the actors perform on a cosmogram designed by artist Seitu Jones. The audience sits, and sometimes stands (it's interactive, after all), in not quite a semicircle but a crescent, drawing energy from and giving inspiration to one another.
The skits tackle familiar subjects but in new, sometimes witty and evocative ways. It says something that while much is said, so much can remain unsaid and yet be understood. In one recurring bit, Bryant and Rajane Katurah play two friends at a nightclub or party gabbing about their lives. One remarks on a male co-worker who claims not to see color. Eventually — and the next bit is a spoiler, the only one, promise — this fella, who talks a lot of mess, gets his mouth snatched.
Mikell Sapp and Darrick Mosley play, respectively, a white Southern belle with golf-ball-sized pearls, fan and matching wide-brimmed hat, and a ready-to-please minstrel Black character with oversized white gloves. In this commentary on the stories we see on stage and screen, he desperately wants to be relevant, and to be part of the central narrative, not be banished to the margins. So the Black man shucks and jives, begging to be part of the action. The white woman pities him and uses him for a chair.
Meanwhile, Katurah plays the help, who is readying weapons, from knives to bow and arrow to guns and RPGs in between skits. Sapp and Mosley have an act that they can take on the road, if they wish, although it says something that their sendup of stereotypes is so relevant.
What's so amazing is that these tropes and types are so readily on the surface and under the surface of conversations. You don't even have to scratch for them to come out.
"What to Send Up" has spoken word like Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf." Hats off to Alexis Camille and Ryan Colbert, who deliver lyrically.
It has confessions and witnessing, including a journey into mortal paranoia enacted in snippets by JuCoby Johnson. It has humor and musicality as Bryant and Katurah lead the audience in sweet song. Singer and soundscape artist Queen Drea's vocalizations, like the people the show celebrates, combine mourning and anger with redemptive beauty.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down
Who: By Aleshea Harris. Directed by Signe Harriday.
Where: Parking lot of Pillsbury House Theatre, 3519 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
When: 5:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Wed., Thu., with 2 p.m. performances July 11 and 18, when it closes.
Tickets: Pick-your-price. pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
Note: Audiences are encouraged to bring their own seating.