In ‘What to Send Up,’ I See You, Black American Theater

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At one point in the show, there is a symbolic Black death, tender though devastating, followed by an extended moment of silence. At another point, we were invited to write messages to Black Americans — they would join the scores of postcards with messages from other audience members that adorn the walls of the theater. Later we were asked to let out a collective, soul-cleansing scream — something I, an introvert, would usually pass on. But the mighty wall of sound led by Black voices — a great sound of exaltation and frustration and defiance all at once — invited me in, and my own voice, unsteady and hesitant, joined. It was like stretching a muscle I never realized existed; the feeling was overwhelming in its depth and release.

But, I wondered, can any such space truly and wholly be for a Black audience, especially when there are white audience members there, too? Some part of me was quietly policing the white people in the theater — how they responded to certain scenes and questions, if and when they laughed at certain jokes, if they seemed to hold themselves accountable, if they were taking up too much space.

As a critic and a reporter, part of what I do is read the room — how and why audiences react to the happenings onstage, and what that says about the work. But here, I didn’t want to care. In the show’s final minutes, non-Black audience members were invited to leave the theater and gather in the lobby. When I recounted this to a friend afterward, she asked what the white audiences saw, if anything, but I don’t know and — I know this is shameful to admit — I don’t care.

I am concerned only with how Harris’s play made me and the other Black people in that room feel. I noted how the couple from earlier clutched each other through most of the show. At some point, the woman left and returned wet-eyed with a handful of tissues. Her partner lovingly rubbed her back.

I also ended the show in tears, which I hadn’t expected — but among Black performers and audience members, I felt newly seen and safe. I had a fresh moment of realization, considering my duty as a Black critic. And as a Black poet, I had a moment of inspiration: I want more art like this.

Affirmations, exclamations of joy, moments of commemoration: I’ll skip the particulars of those last few holy minutes that were exclusive to the Black audience. I want to honor and extend the loving, communal Black space Harris creates in an art form that has so few of them. And I want to keep it for myself — and for that couple and for the Black woman who, earlier in the show, had said she wished for a future version of this country where she could feel more “human.”

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