‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down’: A Black Gaze. A conversation with playwright Aleshea Harris about her play, which seeks to give a theatrical shape to rage and absurdity.
BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS: Your other plays exist in a hermetic kind of space of “story,” where Blackness is centered without self-consciousness and language is an important part force—not just in the way that people express themselves but in the way it literally gives shape to the play world. What to Send Up works with similar methods but looks and feels very different. Was this formal departure conscious on your part?
ALESHEA HARRIS: I just wanted to do something that was activated, something an audience couldn’t just passively experience. I knew this piece would have to do with Black people being killed by police officers with impunity. The idea was to hold people accountable, be confrontational, let it be messy, let it be angry, and let it tread as absurdly as the idea that a Black person could be killed on camera unarmed and the person who killed them get away with it. That is an absurd reality. I wanted to mirror that absurdity in the form of the play.
I also wanted to be really clear about rage, because rage and anger are central to a lot of my work. This has to do with the cultural pressure for me not to be angry, or the ways that, since I was a little girl, I received a message that anger wasn’t something that I could hold onto. I’m going off on a tangent. I hope that’s okay.
BJJ: I’m into this tangent.
AH: We’re mad and we have a right to be mad, because the gaslighting of anti-Blackness is: “You imagined that.” Or “It’s really about economics, not race.” There are so many ways people duck and dodge the uncomfortable reality that anti-Blackness is ingrained in the fabric of our country . I wanted it to be a no-gaslighting space. Black people feel however they feel and that’s okay in this space, and should be okay in the world. And since I am having a Black woman’s experience as a human on this planet, I know very well that there’s this stereotype, there’s this mythology about Black women being mad. In order to challenge that, there’s pressure from the community for us not to be mad, to be something else, to be a carefree Black girl. I’m not interested in being bound by either of those pressures/expectations. I just want to be my authentic self.
Aleshea Harris Stages Black Life: The playwright explores the myths of community, love, and violence.
by Hilton Als | The New Yorker: A Critic at Large | February 28, 2022 Issue
"I'm just trying to get authentically to that,” the actress Stephanie Berry told her director, Whitney White, as they stood in a spacious rehearsal room in the East Village in mid-January. They were working out a bit of business that might or might not end up in “On Sugarland,” Aleshea Harris’s third full-length play, which premières at New York Theatre Workshop on March 3rd. “On Sugarland” was inspired by “Philoctetes,” Sophocles’ play about an expert archer plagued by chronic pain and exiled because of the smell of a wound on his foot. (A snake bit him while he was walking on sacred ground; so much for hubris.) Sophocles’ character may be powerful and gifted, but he is also set apart by the stench of his difference. Eventually, the god Heracles promises to heal Philoctetes’ foot if he returns to Troy to fight in the Trojan War. This is the mythology that jump-starts Harris’s new play, which is itself about mythology: one myth being that, by serving your country, you are protecting your community and yourself; another being that love can vanquish pain."