Review: Unapologetic and in Your Face, Congo Square Theatre’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down Starts the Healing

I wish that I could say that What to Send Up When It Goes Down was a flashback to earlier days of Black theater companies like eta Creative Arts Foundation and Kuumba in Chicago. This new play, written by Aleshea Harris, is a brilliant rage against violence against Black people in contemporary society. It is not a flashback. The violence, degradation, and economic strangulation of Black people is the same now as it was post-Civil War even after protests, outrage, and a Black American president. What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a visceral cry for everyone to listen and pay attention to why these atrocities continue and why it is important for Black people to drive the narrative of rage and how we can heal. The play is co-directed by Ericka Ratcliff and Daniel Bryant

When I took this assignment, I was told that there would be a healing ritual scheduled for after the play. Congo Square flipped the switch and incorporated the ritual into the play. Actor Joey Stone walked around the theater space greeting the audience and offering a black ribbon in memory of Black people who have died from violence. Everyone took one and wore it, perhaps thinking that was a way of showing support for a cause like breast cancer or Alzheimer’s. I took note of the set design by Sidney Lynne Thomas and noticed that the elements of ritual were present.

Alexandria Moorman and Jos N. Banks. Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

A pile of sand represented earth, flickering candles were the fire element, and two large containers of water flanked the sand pile. The most stunning feature was made up of molded sculptures of notes on paper suspended in the air like a spiral staircase representing air. The ritual was a healing circle invoking the names of Black victims of violence, giving a name to the emotions that were felt, and healing words that we wished to send to those who died. The healing words were written on paper by each audience member mirroring the floating sculpture. It was solemn and peaceful as we returned to our seats. Then the cast erupted in a primal scream and stormed the stage.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a combination of scenes that build on one another. The characters have no names but rather are archetypes and stereotypes. One scene features McKenzie Chinn as Made—as in self-made and Uppity Black Woman—not a maid, Joey Stone as an amalgam of a stereotypical Black man servant from Stepin Fetchit to Black Nationalist Man, and Penelope Walker as White Miss who is never called by her name. The scene is repeated three times in three different eras from the beginning of the Civil Rights era to the present day. The trope of White woman frailty is lampooned by Walker whenever the word ‘privilege’ is uttered by Black man servant. White Miss launches into “I was poor and worked for everything that I have and I didn’t enslave anyone”. She calls the servants in her employ a “luxury” and that her hands are clean of past injustices. That kind of rationalization is being heard again today in the wake of books like The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones—rationalizataion instead of asking how to repair the chasm between races.

Joey Stone and Penelope Walker. Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

Channel Bell is quite funny as a woman appalled by what Joey Stone says to her about her demeanor walking through White neighborhoods and how she speaks to her White friends. It is inferred that Black people have to code switch around other races rather than be their authentic selves. To be authentic would appear uppity or not knowing one’s place. Stone imitates Bell as being very dignified with her nose in the air when in fact she was just being casual with an occasional skip in her step. The fear is real because Black people are killed for being friendly and smiling (Emmett Till), walking through a neighborhood and admiring a house (Ahmaud Arbery), or sleeping in one’s own bed (Brionna Taylor).

Willie “Prince Roc” Round gives a devastating performance as a Black man burdened with a hypervigilance that can shorten his life nearly as much as a bullet can. He discovers that he is branded with an autopsy scar and cannot outrun the inevitable. Alexandria Moorman and Jos N. Banks flesh out What to Send Up When It Goes Down with an introductory monologue of violence against Black people statistics. Banks leads the songs in the play with a smooth and clear tenor singing songs of hope.

McKenzie Chinn. Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

Yaw Agyemen is musical director with movement coordination by Charlique C. Rolle. Set and props design is by Sydney Lynne Thomas with lighting by Levert “Levi” Wilkins. Costumes, wigs and makeup are by Alexis Carrie. Victor Hugo Jaimes is stage manager.

Playwright Harris has written a powerful indictment of society and how it enshrines beliefs and behaviors to maintain a Black underclass. You may notice that I did not say American society because anti-immigration and Nationalist sympathies threaten people of color the world over. Director Ericka Ratcliff does a stellar job of staging. pacing, and directing a play with a non-traditional structure. What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a lean and powerful play that packs an emotional punch. I recommend that people of every race see it and make a point of really listening to what is being said. Portraying violence against Black people is not about inflicting guilt or placing blame. Congo Square Theatre is once again holding up a mirror for everyone to see themselves and be open to real change and accountability. That is powerful stuff.

Congo Square Theatre’s production of What to Send Up When It Goes Down is a collaboration with Lookingglass Theatre Company. It plays Wednesdays through Fridays with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays through October 16 at Lookingglass Theatre in the historic Water Tower Water Works building, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $35 and are available at the Lookingglass Theatre website. Please bring proof of vaccination and wear a mask over your mouth and nose to keep the players, the audience, and yourself safe.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.

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