Part ritual, part revival, What to Send Up When It Goes Down (★★★★☆) immerses audiences in the reality — grim and unsettling — that America’s deep-seated strain of racial animus has not been resolved. Before reaching their seats at Woolly Mammoth’s presentation of the innovative Movement Theatre Company musical, satirical sketch comedy-drama, the audience passes through a gallery of portraits, black men and women whose names you’ll know because their lives notoriously were taken under suspicious, unjustified, or baldly racist circumstances.
Beyond the gallery of loss — and the smiling faces of Botham Jean and Amadou Diallo and Sandra Bland and Oscar Grant and Atatania Jefferson, an innocent woman recently shot dead in her home by a Dallas police officer who’d been dispatched there to check on her — What to Send Up enters and fills the theater. A performer one might liken to the show’s choir director, Kambi Gathesha, calls the crowd to a community circle, where everyone can take a deep breath, and join in a ritual of sharing.
The words “safe space” are not used flippantly in the circle, as anyone can share their experiences of anti-black violence, by vocalizing when asked, or stepping forward when prompted. And all are free to feel as incensed or assaulted or moved as they want, safe from Whataboutisms. We’re all living this moment together, Gathesha points out, “the day after some terrible thing, some bang-bang thing,” and it can be painful.
The audience participation can also feel uncomfortable, the messaging a touch didactic, but that moment inside the circle is brief and valuable, and worth any awkwardness in order to see and hear someone else’s point of view. And, in the words of Assata Shakur, one of the radical black poets whose work floats around the space on slips of paper, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The play itself, by Aleshea Harris, backs up the preamble and ritual with a fine mix of racially-tinged, rotating character sketches, step routines, singalongs, and monologues performed by a uniformly excellent cast. Director Whitney White guides them — and the audience — through an eye-opening adventure of vignettes involving, among others, an old-fashioned black maid or “Made” (Rachel Christopher) and her Missus (Ugo Chukwu), a thoughtful brother (Beau Thom) who warns his friend (Chukwu) that he occupies white spaces “too brazenly,” and a fed-up woman (Denise Manning) who can’t even with her co-worker that claims he “doesn’t even see color.”
Knowledge, compassion, and laughter flow through every scene, as the company and audience together work to get to the bottom of what the play calls “the shit that don’t stop.” What to Send Up When It Goes Down finally does stop in a storm of white confetti littering the floor, as red confetti, like blood, splatters around a fallen body. All the sharing and singing and shouting lead to well-earned catharsis.
What to Send Up When It Goes Down runs Oct. 24 to 27 at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, and from Oct. 30 to Nov. 10 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Tickets are $29 to $36. Call 202-393-3939, or visit www.woollymammoth.net.