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Leaning into Discomfort: Black Distanciation

From Rites and Reason Theatre

I cried at the Friday showing of What to Send Up When It Goes Down by Aleshea Harris, directed by Notorious Pink and performed by a Black ensemble cast of undergraduate students. I took my parents to see the production and we weren’t sure what to expect, but were treated to a gorgeous, moving treatment of what it means to move through the world racialized as Black. Set up as a series of vignettes, the interactive play blends and weaves the actor’s personal experiences with surreal accounts of anti-Blackness and audience participation.  

The piece took us to a lot of different places, and it wasn’t the kind of performance you really settle down into your seat for. It moved quickly and nonlinearly, requiring full attention. While watching the third interaction of the same vignette about an old white woman, her driver, and housekeeper (named Made of Her Own Devices), I noticed something. 

The constant role double, the reading out loud of stage directions, and the call and response with the audience all were reminiscent of a showing of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, written by Bertolt Brecht, I watched at New York University, Abu Dhabi. 

Brecht was a German theatre practitioner who wrote in post World World II Germany and developed Epic Theatre. This is a style that forces the audience to be a conscientious observer, as opposed to losing themselves in the story, as a means of building socio-political awareness.  I saw his influence in the distanciation present in What to Send Up particularly saliently  in the performance of Ryan Jones. 

Ryan’s character had a red letter Y drawn on his shirt from navel to shoulders, as if he had been cracked open in an autopsy. His rationale is that if he already looks dead then no one has any reason to kill him and he can be safe in his body. But, the shirt is torn from his body, exposing what is underneath. In this spot lit tableau, light bounces off the red, sparkling, tangible Y that disfigures his body. His efforts were futile, and the violence he seeked to escape landed upon his body with force.

In this moment the audience reached an understanding that we are not just looking at Ryan, but also those whom he represents: Black people who shrink themselves into living in a way they think will make them more palatable or safe. And, as the audience, we recognize the intended warning: this action will not help you. This, again, harkens back to Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Getus is the Brechtian notion that a character embodies a social issue instead of being their own stand alone person. The scene, while gorgeously staged, is not truly about Ryan. He is the morose vehicle for a wider lesson, promptly exiting the stage after it has been presented. 

This scene was far more emotive than anything I’ve ever seen in traditional Brecthian theatre. Yet, adapting Brechtian concepts for Black needs is nothing new, as displayed by figures such as Nina Simone. In her performances she refused comfort to the audience. They were never allowed to ‘lose themselves’ at her shows, as expected of a traditional performance. Her best known work, “Mississippi Goddam”, incorporates many tenets of this practice. Simone adapts distanciation to address her own goals of dismantling apathy and expectations in a white audience. Daphne Brooks of Yale University’s Africana Studies department writes of Simone, “deliver[ing] the sonic equivalent of  African Americans’ utter discontent living under quotidian Jim Crow subjugation—dodging and countenancing hound dogs, imprisonment, and police brutality” (183). Not only is this achieved by the unnerving dissonance between the show tune-esque track and the morose content of the song, but the profane title itself, asserts Brooks, “Within the realm of the politics of black female respectability… the salty language and the religious disavowals of the  pianist chanteuse would no doubt transgress multiple realms of social propriety” (187).

In neither of these two Black works of art do we see the unfeeling emotional detachment that Bretcht requires. The What to Send Up audience is invited to feel, perhaps even required to. Bretcht’s ideals are synthesized into something new that works to process Black grief. While watching the play, I was struck by how vastly uncomfortable I was.  I was uncomfortable with hearing the deeply intimate things coming out of the mouths of the performers. I was uncomfortable as the cast changed costumes before us. And I was uncomfortable as I wiped tears from my eyes sitting next to my mother. 
There is joy in being able to say that, and joy in having been able to feel it without placing a moral imperative upon it. To be uncomfortable is not wrong. It was freeing to be in a space where I could feel however I felt and not be urged to police it. For Black artists, distanciation allows space to process, grieve, and move away from obligatory joy one expects when viewing art. Indeed, at its core, art is the raw expression of emotion.  I hope for all to experience what I did with What to Send Up; The performers handled the raw reaction of the audience with masterful grace.

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