In conversation with Aleshea Harris

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On Sept. 8, Aleshea Harris, playwright, actor, and spoken word poet, shared her performative art piece “What to Send Up When it Goes Down” with Occidental College. Simultaneously a play, pageant, and ritual, What to Send Up creates a cathartic space where performers and audience members collectively reflect on racist violence in America. The intimate performance incorporates powerful language, song and audience participation to honor black bodies, lives, and narratives. In an interview before What to Send Up’s debut at Occidental, Harris llaxplained how her extensive background in the arts and commitment to racial justice inspired a piece that is a tribute to the dead, a call for communal uplift and presentation of resistance as an art form.

What brought you and your piece to Occidental?

I am friends with [Oxy Arts Director] Deena [Selenow] and we have collaborated on some pieces together. We both went to call arts. Denna experienced the piece way back when it was a workshop at [California Institute of the Arts] (CalArts) and responded very strongly to it and we’ve spoken about it and she’s just been championing the piece since then. She then brought the piece to Ella’s attention and they thought the piece could serve the student body here. So they brought me, we had some conversations and voila.

What do you hope students take away from your piece?

The piece is a ritual response to when a black person is killed due to radicalized violence. So unlike a lot of pieces that deal with racism, it isn’t really interested in offering an answer or being prescriptive in any way. It’s just about making a space for these feelings particularly on the part of black people because what I have found, and what we talk about in the process, is there’s a way that persons on the outside of the experience of being black in America don’t understand the nuances and maybe, because it uncomfortable to talk about, want to be silenced. So this piece is about not being silent and being as public as these deaths are now that we are seeing them on video. I think there is room for publicly feeling however you feel about it. So I hope that it is affirming for people. I hope that it resonates in a way that isn’t the type of theater that you go and see and say,“Oh we saw What to Send Up” but that people are engaged critically and that they really think deeply about what they’ve seen and have questions. So I hope that people are impacted in some way.

What are some of the major themes and motifs that you hope people will observe while experiencing the performance?

The overarching theme is the necessity and criticality for black people talking space to express how they really feel, not tailoring it. You know you have to tailor it in school, I’ve had this experience as a teacher at CalArts so sometime students come to me and tell me about their experiences with anti-blackness on campus. On the job at school in life there’s a way you have to clamp down on the ways that we feel on these things for fear of scaring people or making them uncomfortable. So the biggest thing is, take space. It’s not appropriate to take space all the time. Each individual should decide that for themselves. But I think it’s necessary to find a way to heal and express in the midst of the many act s of anti-black violence. Not just physical violence but spiritual and mental violence as well.

Your piece is not just a piece of theater but is more active. Could you explain what makes your piece experiential?

At the very beginning of the work, we gather the audience into a circle and they are prompted to do certain things; speak the name of someone who has been killed due to anti black violence once for every year that they have lived, give how they feel, step into the circle if they have ever seen someone be denied something because they are black, things like that. So I think it immediately charges the space and the experience to call upon the audience to participate so we’re not just passively experiencing this work. There’s a call to the experience. No one is required to participate though most people usually do. For Occidental we [started outside the AGC] and [had] a processional into Choi where we [had] a more traditional theater experience. Then towards the end of the work we bring in the audience and tie in some actions that were performed in the beginning, into the end.

What makes the piece ritualistic?

I was really interested in it being activated and ritual was really meant to mean “bring something into being” so again that’s about activation. It’s not about sitting down watching the piece, applauding and going home. We did a piece, we created a piece. And I think when it comes to anti-black violence, I really need to do something even it’s just me sitting across from someone and have them affirm for me that I’m not crazy there is anti black violence and it is real. I think any marginalized community needs that. Women need to get together and say “there’s fucking misogyny and it’s bullshit!” and i need someone to say that with me publicly. And I find that people have responded really strongly to being integrated and being expected and allowed to participate.

This piece is a continuing work. How has it evolved over time? Is it different from how you imagined it to be when you first wrote it?

I think I discovered challenges evolving the piece and the piece that you [saw] will evolve again. But it really comes down to serving a need that isn’t being met. I think there are some things that I have my eye on that I’ll definitely be feeling out how the audience responds, more ways to integrate the viewers. I feel like if I try something and it doesn’t where it’s ok because it was the ritual for that time and it’s going to shift next time a lot of the actions you see in the very beginning didn’t have and I think a lot of the actions came from wanting the audience to have a more visceral experience and another way to activate. So I just take the lay of the land, take of lot of notes, and go back in and rewrite usually before we go into a new rehearsal process.

How do you select your participants/cast members?

the collaborators are mostly people know from CalArts. I just asked my friends. I think we had auditions for it one time and at that time we had a couple of folks where were not Cal artists who were in the production and who were amazing. But what’s been happening is I keep calling the same people back. We’ve done a workshop at CalArts then we did again in South Central at the Harriet Tubman Center for Social justice and then again at American Conservatory Theater and that was all the same cast. And then in this version, I have a couple people who are in the first version, I have a lot of people who were in that second version who just came along so i don’t have to find new people really. They’re just down and they need something to do and i remind them of that through the process these black bodies, these black people feel the need i felt when i sat down to write this. They want to come and do the ritual.

I try to stay away from the language of conventional theater. I call our “cast” participants a lot rather than performers. And then the folks out here, I try to stay away from audience even though I say it, I try to call them viewers and they are also participants.

How do you address intersectionality within the Black community through your piece?

I think that this piece in my mind is very intersectional not that we’re talking about queer bodies or women’s bodies but the bodies on stage are an array of different black bodies and the ritual is created so that any black person can be a part of it. It doesn’t specifically go into intersectionality butIi am a black women, and these concerns, some of them, are very specific to a black female experience. So there’s intersectionality within the work but it’s not pointing to it. Its there.

I understand that you are a fan of absurdist theater. What about Stand up is absurd?

I think a lot of times absurdist theater present characters who are at odds or who can’t make sense of their surroundings and I think that the experience of black people in America is just that. I think [the experience of black people in America] is like “what? I’m a citizen of this country? If I walk into a certain neighborhood, my body arouses suspicion but I pay taxes like everyone else! I belong here!” I do think that there’s that aspect of absurdist theater that we see in this and certainly is echoed in our real experience of our country. I think the use of language [in absurdists theater] is sometimes not really concerned with convention. I think just taking a recognizable trope and turning the dial up on it, pushing it so far and pushing it to the point of absurdity. Like this man in the performance becoming a seat, him being the physical embodiment of black folks who are expected to bear a load in terms of labor but also psychologically when it comes to conversations about racism, like who is expected to answer these questions and figure these things out, and explain.

How have people reacted after seeing your piece? How do you feel about the observer’s’ reactions?

I can tell that some people are just uncomfortable, visibly uncomfortable and not really knowing what to say. I mean this piece goes really hard on white supremacy and white fragility. I think it just really depends on the space you find yourself in how many times have you asked yourself these questions. If it’s brand new to young this kind of theater something you’d typically try to avoid, there’s a type of reaction a person will have versus a young black college student who’s like “amen that’s my story” so I’ve had people weeping wanting to share. Other people of color finding that it’s not the same, our experiences are not the same though there are so many similarities, so wanting to talk about the similarities, wanting to talk about colorism. mY hope is that persons outside of the black experience who are also marginalized will create their own ritual. that would be super dope. It’s not for me to create a ritual around queer antagonism but i hope that someone does.

I don’t want people to leave here and feel like this was the beginning and the end of something and they had some catharsis and say, “There my offering as far as challenging white supremacy. I’ve dismantled it by seeing what to stand up” we don’t want that! This site where we solve the problem It’s a place where people get to yell or yell you get to yell with them. This is where your eyes may be opened this where you feel affirmed this is where you feel uncomfortable but this isn’t the finish line.

People really aren’t going to come to me. I have had a cast member tell me that he had never felt so distanced from his white friends as he did after he experienced this production. people i know who are what and have seen the work i can tell that they don’t know how to talk about it. and i feel that sometimes because the work isn’t concede with speaking to or about popular opinion as a lot of american theater is and that opinion is white opinion. This piece doesn’t care about that so i find that sometimes there’s tension because they can feel that the piece doesn’t care what they think. So I think the critique manifests as shifty eyes, not really wanting to or knowing how to talk about it or engage this work in the way they might critically engage Romeo and Juliet.

I receive myself of trying to explain. I’m excited to have a contextualized conversation but if it’s like i need you to tell me what this meant I have to relieve myself of that. That’s part of my ritual as i engage in this process. Saying, “Aleshea. you’re not bound to explaining or tidying up anything, or apologizing to anyone for this work.” I just feel like take it, smile and nod and keep pushing. i don’t worry about that. I can’t afford to.

I understand that you have traveled to New York and Ferguson in the wake of instances of police brutality in those cities. What were your visits like?

I have gone to New York but it was unrelated to [the death of Eric Garner] but I went to St. Louis and Ferguson as part of the Every 28 Hours Project, which is a collaboration between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the One Minute Play festival. What we did was spend some time with the community there and it was all around this issue of what happened in Ferguson and i think i didn’t understand, or i felt i could better understand through the experience the depths of oppression there that it’s not just this physical violence it’s the schools, the ways that black people are kept out of certain neighborhood and how historic that practice is and how entrenched and absolutely woven into the fabric of our country, anti blackness is. i think i that i gained a better understanding of that. We had conversations with people who went to the high school that the young man who was killed went to. That was crazy. I didn’t speak to any kids who knew him but there was a sense of despair and that upset me. I think a lot of times people focus on the destruction of the body and they forget about the quality of the life that that body and all of the other living bodies experienced and what being back in this case has to do with that. It was just really eye opening and devastating but it steeled my resolve to do this kind of work

In today’s sociopolitical climate, it seems like every space has been politicized. How do you address political space in your piece?

I think there’s a way that What to Send Up engages the ways that bodies are mythologized based, everything. So we certainly talk about tropes and significations that have to do with mythology; black male body walking down the street, black female body correcting white male. There are things that we send up and call out. In terms of space, there’s a parody in this piece of driving Ms. Daisy. So there’s this old white lady and she has this old black driver and she teaches him how to read. She basically comes into consciousness via their experience [with her driver] because she’s a total racist and still is by the end as far as I’m concerned. But she comes into consciousness via her experience with this old black man so in terms of space, we’re parodying this white domestic space which has a black female servant and driver and is certainly a politically charged space which is a trope that we recognize—black servant—that we see especially in Hollywood. Its part of this greater and enduring unfortunate mythology. But also the idea that a black body in space is also there to serve other bodies. It’s absurd, and i love absurdism, but you see in the work there’s this absurdist twist where the driver becomes the seat. So when i think of space i think of physical space but also mental space and spiritual space. Like where does the black body live as far as people are concerned? Where is it related to? When I took a class at CalArts you had to cast the characters in the play and there were servant characters and people kept casting bodies of color as the servants. and you know i flipped it but it struck me, like how is it that you are at this elite arts institution, you are supposedly a critically engaged person and you are not interrogating why to you this servant body must be a body of color. The mythology works! Without even questioning that people still think that even when they’ve moved beyond it they still think that, who’s the maid, who’s but he Buttler.

Are there any other narratives that you would you like to explore in the evolution of your piece?

I feel like we’re in a good stride. I feel like as long as the piece is open enough, that it embraces all black bodies. I mean in terms of intersectionality there are these jackasses who are only concerned with black liberation for cis straight hetero men and I’m not with that nonsense. I think as long as we keep that open and keep it focused for this particular piece I think we’re in good shape for representing black folks.

As a teacher, student, and artist, how do you feel about recent events and actions on college campuses across the country that are occurring in response to radicalized violence?

I think that these student movements are incredible timely. I think that what’s happening is that people are getting upset. What’s happening in these student movements is that things are being uprooted but a lot of these things are old, ugly truths that people are just getting fed up, and what people have been screaming about for years, all of these isms, lack of care for the environment. but i think we’re headed to a good place. i think people feel a sense of urgency, young people, and a sense of responsibility which is really exciting. It wasn’t like this when i was an undergrad. I won’t say that i wish that it had been because I think it’s coming at the right time. My opinion is that a lot of people who are lazy and who are served by the status quo are going to continue being afraid but they’re going to have to get off their asses and get with the program and i think that it’s good but i think that it’s going to be uncomfortable because the dominant narrative is one that has placated a certain type of person with a certain level of privilege for so long that them having to do some work and unpacking is going to be uncomfortable. So i think we’re headed for change, it’s going to be uncomfortable like all change is and rightfully so. But i think we’re headed to a good place and I’m excited and i encourage students to challenge people. Be rigorous in your thinking; challenge yourself, challenge your peers and don’t be afraid.

What is next for you?

Right now i’m just prepping for CalArts to teach two classes in theater. Im also working on a project called “The Gap.” It’s a collaboration with la Comédie de Saint-Etienne and the Center for New Performance which is CalArts professional producing arm and we’re going to be in workshops in October but we’ve already had workshops in France and all at CalArts. It’s a multi-year project. We’re engaging a lot of the same questions we’ve talked about; talking about racism in the US, racism in France, radicalization, Islamophobia, the environment, what makes us a society. Basically asking really big questions in an attempt to whittle it and find a really nuanced and exciting space for exploring these [ideas].