Grantee Spotlights

Congo Square Play Promotes Healing, Catharsis in Chicago

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Traditionally, “call-and-response” is not part of the live theater experience.

A new show being staged in Chicago by Congo Square Theatre is changing that.

"What To Send Up When It Goes Down" by playwright Aleshea Harris is described as a "play-pageant-ritual homegoing celebration in response to the physical and spiritual deaths of Black people as a result of racialized violence." It explores themes of police brutality and other gratuitous violence that claims far too many Black lives, and seeks also to hold space for catharsis, celebration and healing. It intentionally breaks the fourth wall, blurring boundaries between performers and audiences and encouraging a communal and decidedly Black experience, where audience participation–"call-and-response"–is expected.

Although created in 2016, the shocking 2020 murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the racial unrest that followed, have made the show ever-present in its relevance. It resonates strongly in a city like Chicago, known for its racial segregation, historically fraught relationship between police and communities of color, and generations of disinvestment and lack of resources on the predominantly Black South and West sides.

"For over 20 years Congo Square Theatre has committed to telling stories on stage by and for Black people. We strongly believe that Aleshea Harris’ profound play What To Send Up When It Goes Down addresses the physical and spiritual deaths of Black people as a result of racialized violence," said Congo Square Executive Director Charlique C. Rolle.

With Black community participation at its core but inclusiveness for all audiences, "What to Send Up" is being staged March 31-April 16 at Gray Chicago on the West Side, and April 21-May 1 at the Rebuild Foundation Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side.

Said Theaster Gates, a 2010 Joyce Award winner and Rebuild Foundation founder: “As artists, harnessing our creative sensibilities as an impetus for protest and healing is one of the highest and best uses of our artistic intelligence. The role that Black artists and Black cultural institutions in Chicago play in shining a light on injustice is paramount to dismantling systems that perpetuate racialized violence against Black bodies.”

In the spirit of "radical generosity," equity, and making its work accessible to the community, Congo Square is providing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community organizations, social justice organizations, and youth-serving organizations up to 25 FREE tickets (as available) to see the show.

"Our hope is that their presence at one of our performances will be a healing experience to grieve, feel seen and valued, and celebrate the resilience of blackness in community," Rolle said.

Congo Square Theatre is a Joyce Foundation grantee and Joyce is a sponsor of the show.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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