Playwright Aleshea Harris’ fierce struggle with American racism

Playwright Aleshea Harris
Playwright Aleshea Harris at her L.A. home.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Aleshea Harris contemplates the black body. It is a celebration and a battlefield, a terrain upon which a nation’s racism is enacted. She is intimate with how the body moves, the scars it bears, the rhythm of its words. They gather inside her, images and voices, whispering like ghosts and not ghosts, from slave days to graves dug after police shootings.

Harris is a playwright in a fierce struggle with America. Her syllables blaze; her sentences sting, comfort and provoke, as if a flood moving with inexorable force toward a reckoning. Her characters are at once broken and defiant, navigating vengeance and the betrayals of racism, including a woman who tried to love the white world but found only disavowal, bitterness and sorrow. It was, the character says, “like riding a bike without a chain.”

The daughter of a soldier, Harris, who taught at CalArts in Valencia and lives in Sunland, can seem a surveyor looking over a violated map etched on black bodies. “I never leave this landscape and it is constantly under attack,” she said of her own skin.“We have become a currency that we can’t reap the benefits of. Anti-blackness is not always someone yelling the n-word. It’s not always in your face. It’s the doorman eyeing me with suspicion.”

Her play “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” which had a recent staging in Boston, is a ritual to mourn blacks killed in violence, many by police officers. A blistering exploration of race, the work stirs anger, sobs and a sense of pride and purification among blacks. Whites in the audience — they are told at the beginning the play is not meant for them — are left weighing generations of discrimination and prejudice. The societal gaze shifts so that blacks are at the center and whites become the uncomfortable ones at the edges.


“It’s a stunning thing to behold on the page,” said Whitney White, who directed the play in Boston and New York. “It reads to me like a piece of music you feel. It’s like a punch. It’s got a beat to it. I’ve never been involved in something that was so honestly written for an audience. There are no gimmicks.”

The cast of "What To Send Up When It Goes Down."
(Lauren Miller)

Harris is part of a vanguard of young, African American playwrights boring into questions of race and history through humor, drama, absurdity and tragedy. Their works reveal how the legacy of slavery continues to twist through the American consciousness. They include Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” which is running on Broadway and glimpses interracial couples engaging in “antebellum sexual performance therapy,” and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview”, which examines identity and how racism changes the way white and black people view theater and art.

The nation’s air is scorched with vitriol and, at times, it seems we are viewed as if through distorted prisms. President Trump has emboldened white supremacists and deepened racial lines. The country has veered from Barack Obama to Black Lives Matter to an upcoming election in which bigotry and fear of “the other” threaten to further divide a land where the promise of equality in income, education, housing and opportunity has long been denied blacks. That narrative is underscored by a white America increasingly uneasy over immigration and identity politics.

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“It’s the power of mythology,” said Harris while eating African stew at a Boston restaurant on a cold afternoon. “We’ve been told this story so effectively. About who we are. Where we belong. And who is worth this and who is worth that. People can’t get past it. It affects where we work and how we work. It’s in the bone marrow.”

Harris is an intent listener. Words, to her, are to be parsed, absorbed, their meanings kept precise. Her influences are vast, from the ancient Greeks to Toni Morrison to fairy tales, notably “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The beanstalk tattoo on her arm signifies one can do a lot with a little. Her “death bed list” includes visiting Africa, buying a house, writing a graphic novel (she’s prone to the feminist “Bitch Planet”) and flying first class on her own dime.

She won an Obie Award last year for “Is God Is,” a wild meditation on family dysfunction and violence told through the bloody journey of two sisters seeking to avenge a father’s crime. The language streaks with the velocity of shrapnel. The New York Times review read: “Step aside, Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh, and all you other macho purveyors of mutilation and mayhem with a smile. A snarly new master of high-octane carnage has risen into view.”

Such potency proved too much in 2018 when the theater department at Williams College canceled a production of “Beast Thing”, a play in progress about a town’s attempts to devour its sins. Several cast members quit and some students found offense in a work that dealt with gun violence, hanging, sex and infant death. It was the case of a provocative playwright colliding with an age of trigger warnings and cultural sensitivities.

Aleshea Harris
Aleshea Harris: “Anti-blackness is not always someone yelling the n-word. It’s not always in your face. It’s the doorman eyeing me with suspicion.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Slender with hair falling in rows to her shoulders, Harris, unlike her characters, moves as if not wanting to wrinkle the air. Her mother emigrated from Trinidad to the U.S., enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany, where Harris was born into a life of flag salutes and bugle calls. Her father — she doesn’t speak of him; not using language is form of power — was absent when she was young. She picked up her ear for cadence and rhythm mostly in Mississippi, where sentences stretched and coiled in riffs, even the one by a school kid who joked that a black child looked like a monkey. Her teacher tried not to laugh.

That moment left a mark and became part of a monologue in “What to Send Up.” A character stands alone and says:

“I looked down and realized joke was on me,

literally, all over me and in me

The kids were laughing. All of their pink faces laughing.

Teacher was trying to hide a titter behind her hand.

I do a little dance as I run back to the ghetto hoping I don’t look too suspicious or particularly ready to die.”

Harris explained the experience as “bewildering. It [racism] was still new to me. I came into a conscious of anti-blackness a little older than some people because of my military upbringing.”

She attended the University of Southern Mississippi, wanting to be an actor. “A musical theater nerd, playing Sally Bowles,” she said. That changed when she realized “how people had very narrow ideas” about how black bodies exist on stage. “I wasn’t experiencing the kind of work that I thought was exciting, that kept me up at night,” she said. “I needed to make that kind of work. I wasn’t thinking about issues at that time. I was thinking about centering black bodies.”

Obama’s election in 2008 made her a playwright. “If he can be president, I can write,” said Harris, who at the time quit an administrative job at a Florida performing arts center. She ended up at CalArts as a student and then a teacher. “Obama’s part of an ecosystem that remains anti-black, but Barack Obama countered that mythology, shattered it.” The rage in her work intensified after a disturbing accumulation of black deaths, including the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida and the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

Black faces of the dead looked over Boston’s Hibernian Hall lobby, where the American Repertory Theater presented the Movement Theatre Company’s production of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.” The faces were young: smiling boys, a teenager in football pads, a Marine, a girl with braces. Martin and Brown were there too. The room felt as if a funeral parlor. A quiet descended, even as actors rehearsed and technicians worked with wires. Harris scanned the pictures. All killed, she said, in “racialized violence.”

Denise Manning lifts her face and hands upward in "What To Send Up When It Goes Down" in Boston.
Denise Manning, center, and cast of “What To Send Up When It Goes Down” in Boston.
(Lauren Miller)

“What to Send Up” is a eulogy and a celebration, something muscular and alive. Its narratives wind into one another, including those of a slain black man, a racist white matron (played by a black actor), a maid (her name is “Made” and she polishes knives and fury) and a woman contemptuous of the white world that repeatedly rejects her. The language is poetic and immediate, and the actors, twist, bend, dance and sashay over a small stage as if flames blown by gusts of wind. It is a work of perpetual movement.

And a testament to loss, as when Made, played with haunting ferocity by Rachel Christopher, says: “Made doesn’t have any kids / Made doesn’t have any kids and it is after the boy’s been filled with holes / the body washed and sobbed over / and hymned over and placed in the ground. / It is when the news cycle has cycled and / his name has gone cold on nearly everyone’s tongue.”

The play is an invitation for blacks to stand at what Harris calls an “anger spittoon” to weep, clap, laugh and find comfort in pageant and shared experience. Minutes before the work ends, the non-black audience is asked to leave the theater so blacks can hold the moment a bit longer. It is a pointed inversion, a challenge to force reflection. Whites are led to the lobby, where they stand in a circle and are urged to do what they can to end racism. Blacks linger in a place has been made just for them, which in the American theater today is rare.

“Soul damage is an important thing to acknowledge,” said Harris. “That’s why I wrote this. There isn’t a space where we [African Americans] can get some community around this particular grief, this thing I’m going to encounter when I go to the store. And it keeps happening, and I know that if I’m carrying it, other people are as well. So what do we do? How to we refuel ourselves? That we can be OK in the world and that we’re not consumed by this grief and anger.”

“Soul damage is an important thing to acknowledge.”

Aleshea Harris

Christopher said when she first read the play she was troubled about racism and violence in New York: “I was moving through my city afraid and tense. I still am. But this play has provided an anchor, a shield. I need these words. The experiences and traumas are stored in our bodies. An explosion becomes necessary. Aleshea’s words wear and tear on the body. They make us brave. They lift us.”

Harris is on the road often these days. She’s working on an adaptation of the Greek play “Philoctetes” and performing a spoken word piece called “We Do Not Beg the Rope.” Producer Scott Rudin and A24 are bringing “Is God Is” to the screen. A critic recently compared Harris to the late playwright Sam Shepard; she found that curious. She is still mad that Bill Maher used the N-word on his show two years ago. The comedian apologized, and Harris’ liberal friends said conservative politics and white supremacists, not Maher, were the more pressing concerns. She told them:

“He thinks he can use this word and you’re telling me — a black woman — who carries the weight of this history, and who has all the meat on the hook when you don’t, that you won’t listen to what I have to say about why this is a problem.”

It’s about words. Language. A sneer, the prick of a syllable. The way eyes follow. Harris doesn’t obsess. She’s just aware, attuned. Sitting in the Boston restaurant, a gray sky pressing down, kids outside yelling and laughing in a neighborhood of high crime, she finished her soup, pushed up her sleeves and showed her tattoos. The beanstalk. And, on the other arm, a bird stretching to flight, an image inspired from a line by Toni Morrison, “For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

She looked at the bird. Smiled. The skin is a map, bearing markings of who we are. What people have made us. What we want to be. It is unlikely Harris will surrender. She has found air and a piece of sky.