Theater & dance

Jeneé Osterheldt

We need a ritual to remember black lives like DJ Henry’s. This play gives us one

Lauren Miller/Handout
The company of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”

Sometimes it’s a look, a white woman clutching her bags a little tighter when she sees you.

Sometimes it’s at work, when a white co-worker talks over you, repeats your ideas as their own, or tries to connect to you by making presumptions based on your blackness.

Sometimes it’s in your face — a finger, a threat, or in the most fatal cases, a gun. Someone wants to physically hurt you because of your blackness.


Every day is a struggle so normalized we just deal with the scrapes, scratches, and big, blue bruises. We keep smiling, keep thriving, keep moving along.

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Until something stops us and forces us to catch our breath.

Thursday night at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, a little less than 100 people gathered for a play, The Movement Theatre Company’s production of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” by Aleshea Harris.

It’s less of a play and more of a ritual, a reckoning, and a recognition of anti-blackness — be it police brutality, prejudice, or daily microaggressions.

We started by walking through a photo gallery — more than 200 portraits of black Americans of all ages killed by racialized violence — many of them at the hands of police.

Lauren Miller/Handout
An audience member at “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”


When we think of Black Lives Matter, we often think of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner.

But black people have always been brutalized. Before hashtags, there was Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Fred Hampton.

There was DJ Henry, the 20-year-old Pace University football player from Easton. A photo of him hangs on the wall. His eyes are warm and his smile is wide. In 2010, he was killed by a New York police officer.

A sign depicting DJ Henry in Easton in April 2011.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
A sign depicting DJ Henry in Easton in April 2011.

Henry was following orders. One officer told him to move his car. As he did, another officer, Aaron Hess, jumped on the hood of the car and fired into the windshield, killing Henry.

“It’s important to shed a light for people who are on the fence about this, that these things are really happening,” DJ’s father, Dan Henry, recently told me. “This is not the first time. Emmett Till wasn’t the first time.”


Earlier this month, Roc Nation and the Players Coalition of the NFL released a PSA, #EveryonesChild, telling Henry’s story.

“We want this PSA to generate productive dialogue between people of all backgrounds,” says Players Coalition co-founder and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, “so we can start to bridge the communication gap and work together to end these injustices.”

For the Henry family, it’s more than a PSA. It’s their lives.

“This really happened to us. This isn’t made up. We live it every day, every moment, we live with the loss of our son,” Dan Henry said. “We try to be thoughtful about where we take our micro experience and how we deliver a macro message. [The PSA] humanizes these experiences to the people who have somehow tuned out or grown numb to these things that are occurring.”

“What to Send Up When It Goes Down” reminds us that we are not alone in our blackness, even though we have our own stories to tell.

Lauren Miller/Handout
Denise Manning in “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”

Allies are welcome, but as actress Nemuna Ceesay tells us, this is a play by black people, about black people, and for black people.

We moved from the photo gallery to the theater space, where we formed a circle and introduced ourselves. We also lifted the name of Yusuf Hawkins, the 16-year-old killed by a mob of white teens in Brooklyn in 1989.

Together, we said his name 16 times. Breathe life for the dead who once lived.

We were asked a series of questions about racism and brutality.

Every single person in the circle took a step forward when asked if they’d witnessed a black person being discriminated against.

Every single black person took a step forward when asked if they had been discriminated against because they were black.

There were tears as we looked around at one another. We were given pens to write love letters to black people, reminders that in a world that demoralizes you, you are worthy.

I wish I had written a letter to Immanuel.

In late September, an Arizona group home worker called the cops on Immanuel for knocking over a trash can and yelling. This week, a video of the police confrontation went viral.

Immanuel is screaming.

The 15-year-old quadruple amputee, a young black boy, is on the kitchen floor, in a headlock. He’s flailing under the weight of a white police officer.

I’m not sure what a boy with no limbs did that made an officer with a gun feel threatened enough to tackle him. Beyond be black.

That same officer threatens a black boy recording the incident, arrests him, and then slams the handcuffed and physically compliant 16-year-old’s head into the wall.

In the theater, while standing in the circle, we were asked to say how we felt after witnessing how many of us experience various forms of racism.

Lauren Miller/Handout
The company of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”

Words like sad, powerless, unworthy, unloved, and scared were uttered. We were then asked how we want to feel. Our answers were things like equal, safe, powerful, loved, and connected.

Through song, laughter, and ritual, we found our way to those feelings. It was ceremonial by design.

Aleshea Harris learned the importance of sharing grief after reading about how Vietnam War vets communalize grief, to share their trauma, and do so without judgment.

“It’s always been important for people to have personal ritual,” the playwright said.

“But oppressed communities need a way to manage the effects racism have on the spirit in small ways that become cumulative and impactful on spiritual and physical health.”

Presented by American Repertory Theater and Hibernian Hall, “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” isn’t just a play, it’s collective solace. Playing through Nov. 24, it has showtimes at both locations. It intentionally opened in Hibernian Hall, in Dudley Square, in Roxbury.

“It’s a space where we aren’t gaslighting black folks about what we know happens to us,” Harris said of the play/ritual. “What we bring with this work is a formalized space for black people to talk about things, to be in a space that says, ‘I exist for you to face down things that are affecting your community.’”

By using audience participation, we actively see ourselves rather than escaping into entertainment. The actors don’t feel like actors. They feel like comrades, using vignettes to expose the everyday anti-blackness we experience. They are comrades, black people, they live in this skin just like us.

Lauren Miller/Handout
Audience members at “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”

At the end of the play, a few of the love letters are read. We are told to repeat the words. One of them is mine. It ends with, “I love your black and mine.”

The nonblack members of the audience exited the room and head into the photo gallery where they talk about being allies.

In the theater, us black folk gather into a circle. We took a collective breath in. We exhaled. We are asked to acknowledge one another. We’re asked to remember we are not alone, we have each other, we have our ghosts. We are reminded of our beauty, our worth, and our joy.

We’re invited to speak the name of someone we’ve lost to racial violence.

I was determined to say Fred Hampton. The 50th anniversary of his FBI-sanctioned murder is next month. But “DJ Henry” tumbled out of my mouth, his wide smile stretched across my mind.

And in unison, everyone repeated his name, “DJ Henry.” We send life up to those who’ve been taken down.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.