Whitney White: I first met Aleshea through her work; I had read his script for “Is God Is” (2018), and I had never seen anything so stunning, breathtaking, brutal and hyper-feminine. Someone from Harlem’s Movement Theater Company called me and said, “We’re doing his next play,” and I said, “Please let me talk to him; let me find a way to direct it. I read “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (2019), and she blew me away yet again, with as much rigor and power as ever. It was our first collaboration, and we have since moved on to our second: “On Sugarland”. [about a Black community in the South, which finished its run at New York Theatre Workshop last month].
Aleshea creates fully formed worlds. When she says something, she means it. When she wants something, she goes there. It’s difficult to have a bottom line in the theater world, to have limits and an aesthetic in which to engage. But that’s what she does every day. As a director, I’m drawn to big visions in expression, and Aleshea helps keep the work honest. At the same time, I think ours is such a delicious tension – between being grounded and wanting to fly off to other worlds.
During “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in 2020 we went to the taqueria Tacombi practically every day. Eating together strengthens community, brotherhood and family. And eating is a theatrical tradition: a major practice of French director Ariane Mnouchkine at La Cartoucherie in Paris is for the actors to feed the audience. I love eating with Aleshea – there’s something powerful about women coming together and being voracious.
This also translates into work. With any creative practice, you must go as far as possible; you can’t lie to yourself. So I get greedy about the prep, swallow it all, and leave it on stage.
Aleshea Harris: Whitney talks a lot about being greedy. This is important, especially for black women, because we are often made to feel like we don’t deserve anything. So I really like this policy of being greedy for food and work – this idea that I have the right to have whatever I want.
Often this is the time. I like to say that I am good but slow. I am meticulous and I want to create something extraordinary for my potential collaborators. I want them to be a bit scared of it, just like me, and it’s a bit heavy. I want to give black actors and black people a gift, a play they’ve never seen before. I want to give them the opportunity to feel expansive, challenged, loved and nurtured. So it goes from being a very lonely process – it’s just me for months, years – and then suddenly there’s an army of people with all these thoughts, ideas, questions and opinions. There’s a lot to do to feed my spirit to give birth to this baby that I’ve wanted for years. But it’s nice to have a midwife in Whitney – my queen of borders queen of people – a great go-between to help with this baby and be a source of assurance that everything will be fine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.