‘Citizen’ Actress Tina Lifford on Racism: Take action now to bring hope for tomorrow

'Citizen: An Americam Lyric' at the Fountain Theatre

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

by Tina Lifford

“I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.”

This line begins the closing sequence in Claudia Rankine’s play Citizen: An American Lyric that I have been rehearsing since June 15th and blogging about since June 30th. Citizen depicts both everyday unconscious and overt acts of racism in America.

Looking through the lens of systematic oppression, hundreds of years in the making, it is easy to surmise that there is no end in sight to our historical predicament. However, this is not the lens through which I see.

Instead, I peer through the lens of social achievement. From this perspective, something within the human spirit seems to consistently triumph. The spirit that animates humanity continues to expand and advance. Crossing over ignorance. Trespassing upon man-made limits and ideas. Forcing change, no matter the circumstances.

Tina Lifford

Tina Lifford

From this purview, what happens to the line of dialogue – I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending – when it is held up against the dismantling of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the civil rights gains of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans? Next to these social accomplishments, an affirming thought emerges: our innate resilience is indomitable. It forges unprecedented paths and unpredictable outcomes. Hope for the future can spring from this thought.

Of course, in the face of recent racial strife, it is prudent to understand that the path ahead is not an easy one. The dismantling of institutional racism clearly takes time. But I find comfort in walking through the history of humanity and seeing the consistent presence of an indomitable spirit in action. The two-term election of President Barack Obama comes to mind.

I am also mindful of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Mountaintop speech, wherein he says that he has been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. It is worth noting that the he never attached a completion date to his vision. I suspect that its fulfillment is an ongoing process. And, for it to be fulfilled we must all do our part.

Our job is to question, and then take actions that align with the march of humanity. When we’re trying to figure out what is best for us all, the question we must courageously ask is “What action most honors the idea that every human being is innately equal?”

When we give our attention to important questions like this, that attention empowers the question, making it strong enough to inform and conjure answers. This is the path of scientific discovery. It is also the path to social change.

Despite the current disquiet and heightened racial tension, there is cause for celebration. Against all odds, in 60 relatively short years, the civil rights movement has created massive change. We must not lose sight of this. Of course, more is still needed. But by acknowledging our gains thus far, we can gather the courage and determination needed to stay the course.

We cannot allow bloodcurdling injustices to blind us or distract us from getting to the promised land. Present challenges and heartbreak must not be permitted to obscure the bigger picture.

We must never throw up our hands, defeated.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

We do not have to know how to end what doesn’t have an ending. We only need to commit to taking the small steps that are ours to take.

You and the actions you take are the hope for tomorrow.

To forge change we must turn the insights acquired here and elsewhere into action. Applying new insights to current life challenges creates more fulfilled and powerful lives. Lessons learned will support the dismantling of bigger issues, including racism.

When we approach both our personal well-being and the well-being of society with the belief that something inside of us is innately creative, resilient, empowered to make new choices, and undeniably whole and worthy, we become fortified in the ways that achieving change requires.

Tina Lifford is an stage, film and TV actress and founder of the Inner Fitness Project

Citizen: An American Lyric is now playing to Sept 14. More Info/Get Tickets

The American lyric of ‘Citizen’ matters

Leith Burke in 'Citizen' at the Fountain Theatre.

Leith Burke in ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre.

by Rick Chertoff

With the current discussion on race and apartheid in Israel/Palestine, Citizen couldn’t be more timely.

Only seconds into Citizen: An American Lyric  you’ll find yourself at the “ground zero” of any black person’s life in this country, faced with the inevitability of how it is, how it always has been, and how it looks like it always will be, to be the “Other,” and it presses on you.  You realize you are up against the implacable determination — you could even say a majority conspiracy — that your life matters less than others and that in an instant (any instant), it could be time for a large or small dose of humiliation…or it could be time for a ritual killing.  You are perpetually “it.”

What does it feel like to be Black in America?  That question is the Gordian Knot of the American psyche.  Racism is the drug of choice against painful self-knowledge in every society. Here in the U.S. it is in great measure dedicated to the denial of black suffering and of black value. The question of white supremacy and black suffering has asserted itself more forcibly now than at any time since the end of the civil rights movement.  As the ubiquity of hand-held cameras has repeatedly revealed, there is a structural violence deeply embedded in American society, even if most Americans are decent people who want to believe that Black Lives Matter.

The superb writing and acting in Citizen are realized as the six actors, each of whom star in small vignettes throughout this play, portray how casual everyday interactions can transform a fellow citizen … a human being … into objects of scorn by simple, stereotyped perceptions and behaviors that are driven by a submerged dark historical force that surfaces regularly to devour black people.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

The stories carried by this monster force are fantasies that say white supremacy isn’t real, that racism exists because of inferior and defective black culture, that force is all that keeps them from devouring us, and that (the savages) are supported by naïve do-gooders, or “trouble makers.”  This is done subtly or brazenly by liberal and reactionary political forces using consolidated media to dismiss, distort, or exoticize the ritual violence (e.g. Geraldo Rivera), thus robbing us of understanding.  “Blame the victim” is the default.  The only effective weapon against this dehumanization is the humanization of all by all, and that must include listening to authentic and un-corporate black voices, which are typically marginalized.  By breaking the taboo against hearing and feeling the whole of black experience, including the pain, this play lays bare the mechanism woven into the fabric of American life, thus exorcizing the demon, one audience at a time.

Of course this dilemma of shifting perceptions is perfect for a drama as it contrasts conflicting and complimentary personas that vie and coexist in our social interactions; “individuality” and community, equality and privilege, dominance and “loving thy neighbor.”  For example, the property owner likes the prospective renter until they turn out to be black.  More contemporaneously, the lack of using a turn signal is an innocuous infraction unless it was a black turn signal, at which point the penalty is death.  Another “bad cop”?  Another bad department?

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Robbed of accuracy and context, racism can seem incidental through the filters of white privilege, filters that have been refined for 400 years.  Once the filters are called out, it can be revealed as systematic and structural. The data proving the systematic nature of institutional racism has been amply available to anyone who cared to look for a long time, but it has not changed our murderous system.  Can drama?

Throughout this play, I found myself amazed that the inner voices of black people could be so faithfully portrayed.  It was like looking at Michaelangelo’s Pieta where Mary is holding her dead son.  In both we are deeply moved. How did they accomplish this in Citizen?  They insisted on granular accuracy, both in writing and in acting, that renders a depth to each reality explored so thoroughly that it is fully felt — and these are hard realities.  As spelled out in the subtitle and the blurb, Citizen: An American Lyric, “A provocative meditation on race in America,” it does have the quality of a six-person meditation, and yes, this play is very lyrical. It moves freely between everyday speech and carefully worked and compellingly elegant poetry using selected pieces of the black stream of consciousness, and very musically so.  At times the lines seemed fragmentary creating precarious tensions that always resolve, as freely as a jazz improvisation or a Brahms string quartet.

But I find the words “provocative meditation” the best description, because the entire play substitutes the arc of meaning for the arc of plot, which produces something akin to soaring.

“Black lives matter” becomes real by bearing witness to the black and white lives in this play through the enlivening skills of six excellent actors, their director, and an authentically original writer.

The American lyric of Citizen matters.

Rick Chertoff is an activist on behalf of Palestinian rights and an organizer with LA Jews for Peace. This post originally appeared in The Markaz

Citizen: An American Lyric runs to Sept 14 at the Fountain Theatre.  MORE INFO/GET TICKETS 

Isa’s Intern Journal: Utopia

FT archives Aug 2015by Isa Espy

One of my favorite things about theatre is that, when in it, you are free to create worlds that don’t have to abide by the rules of reality. In the last several weeks I have spent many an hour sifting though The Fountain’s archives. Looking through old playbills feels strangely akin to walking though the Museum of Natural History— each one is like a peek at the remnants of a different world. Every play has its own texture, its own rhythm, its own particular flavor.

Last semester, I took an amazing architecture class that felt more like a philosophy lecture. In it we delved into the true meaning of Utopia. Thomas More wrote a book in the early 1500s about the fictional island of Utopia, the home of a society whose religious, social and political customs were harmonious. More fashioned the name of his island from the Greek ou (‘not’) and topos (‘place’). By its very appellation, a Utopia cannot exist in the real world. It cannot be created or completely realized within reality; it is a non place. The purpose of a Utopia is to be a platform from which we may view and critique our own world.

I believe theatre to be a type of Utopia. When a set designer and a lighting designer and a writer come together, they do not just create a story, they fashion a world. As soon as you step into a theatre, time no longer abides by worldly conventions. Sunlight can become rose or pale purple, shining ethereally from a fresnel light. The ocean can seep from the corners of a deep blue blanket. A leopard can sing a child a lullaby. An entire universe is contained within a play.

Utopia.

Utopia.

When an audience goes to see a play, we spend and hour or two in a different world. Yet, after the actors take their last bow and the house lights flick on, that world dissolves into a Non Place, and you find yourself back in the reality you had left behind. Theatre is the ultimate Utopia. We do not live in West Side Story‘s New York or the Paris of Les Miz. We can’t break into song whenever we feel like it. Nor can we be so raw as we are on stage, we cannot bear our soul on a day-­to-­day basis. No one wants to break down every time they buy a smoothie at Whole Foods, or fall passionately and dangerously in love with the person behind the desk at the DMV. Human emotion in its rawest form, stripped of its binding of everyday convention, is powerful but ever so delicate.

We need the armor we carry every day to protect us. But if we can take it off for an hour or two at the theatre, it seems a little lighter when we have to put it back on.

CITIZEN: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre

CITIZEN: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre

Our current production, Citizen: An American Lyric, is about race in America. Like all good theatre, once audiences and actors are in the world of Citizen, different rules apply. We can talk about problems that go unnoticed or unaddressed. We can use words we would never say. We can look directly at issues under the forgiving light of a fresnel that would hurt our eyes in the harsh light of our unforgiving sun.

After we applaud Citizen and exit The Fountain’s cozy walls, we go back to our world. It is no longer safe. But we carry a little bit of that truth with us, that thing we just glimpsed. We do not live in the Utopia of the theatre, but we have stood on that placeless island for an hour or two and looked from a distance at our little moving planet, our flawed country, our damaged city, our fissured neighborhoods, our dysfunctional homes, our imperfect selves … and we have gotten to know them a little better. The world might be the same as when we entered the theatre and hour and a half earlier, but we are not.

Isabel Espy is the Fountain Theatre’s summer intern from UCLA. We are grateful for the support of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and its Arts Internship program.  

 

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: ‘Citizen’ author Claudia Rankine engages in Q&A at Fountain Theatre

 Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Author Claudia Rankine attended last Sunday’s matinée performance of our world stage premiere of her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, and engaged the audience in a Q&A Talkback discussion with the cast.  It was Ms. Rankine’s first opportunity to see the Fountain’s full production of the stage adaptation of her book  (she attended a reading of an earlier draft of the script two months ago). She was very moved by what she experienced on Sunday.  

Following the performance, Ms. Rankine and the cast addressed issues of racism dramatized on stage in the play and rendered in the book. Audience members shared their insightful comments and asked meaningful questions of the author and the actors. Rankine then signed copies of her book and a catered reception was served in the cafe immediately after.

Another memorable afternoon at the Fountain Theatre.

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Citizen: An American Lyric runs to Sept 14th. MORE INFO/GET TICKETS   

Photo Slideshow: ‘Citizen’ Executive Producers and Fountain Donors Enjoy a Special Night

The CITIZEN company

The CITIZEN company

Friday night was an exclusive gathering at the Fountain Theatre of special patrons invited to enjoy an early performance of the world stage premiere that they helped make happen. Executive Producers of Citizen: An American Lyric and their guests were welcomed to the Fountain for a preview performance in their honor, followed by a catered reception with the artists upstairs in our cafe.  It was a lively evening of thought-provoking theatre, energetic conversation, and invigorating food and drink.  

Two months ago, the Executive Producers attended an exclusive reading of Citizen,  the new project the Fountain was developing about race in America based on the internationally acclaimed and award-winning book by Claudia Rankine. Even in that early phase of development, those gathered  recognized the urgent need for this project to blossom to fruition and offered their financial support. Their contributions were essential in guaranteeing that Citizen would be produced at the highest artistic level possible and reach a wide landscape of audiences.  Thanks to the partnership made by our Executive Producers, the Fountain was able to increase its marketing and promotional campaign for Citizen, reach out to more schools and engage more students, and establish a greater range of associations with a diverse variety of organizations for the project.  

The Executive Producers of Citizen are Barbara Herman, Susan Stockel, Dorothy and Stanley Wolpert, Diana Buckhantz, Marjorie Goldman, Debra Grieb and John Mickus, Karen Kondazian, Sophie and Leslie MacConnell, Brenda and Brett Marsh, Dick Motika and Jerrie Whitfield, Dr. Ejike and Mrs. Victoria Ndefo, Rita Rothman, Barbara and Barry Shaffer, and Lois Tandy

Too often, many may view or experience the daily sickness of racism and ask themselves , “What can I do?” The Fountain Theatre and this community of extraordinary and generous people joined together as a family and made the decision to do something. For that, we are proud and will forever be grateful.

Enjoy These Party Photos! 

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Fountain Theatre honored by City of Los Angeles for world stage premiere of ‘Citizen’

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell presents

Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell presents the LA City Commendation

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell presents the LA City Commendation

Friday night became another unforgettable evening for the Fountain Theatre when Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell presented the organziation with a Certificate of Commendation from the City of Los Angeles honoring the Fountain for creating, developing and producing the world stage premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric.

The LA City Commendation was received by Fountain Co-Artistic Directors Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor, Producing Director Simon Levy, and Citizen director Shirley Jo Finney.  The document stated:

Certificate of Commendation is hereby presented to The Fountain Theatre. On behalf of the City of Los Angeles and the 13th Council District, we would like to commend the Fountain Theatre for creating, developing, and producing the riveting world premiere of CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, thereby illuminating the many subtle acts of everday racism and the universal truths about being a citizen. Best wishes on continued growth and success! signed, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, 13th District

“Our sincere thanks to Councilmember O’Farrell and the Los Angeles City Council for this very meaningful honor, ” stated Sachs. “Mitch O’Farrell is a friend of the Fountain and an advocate for the arts in Los Angeles. We deeply appreciate him taking the time to personally present this honor to the Fountain.”

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The world stage premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric runs to Sept 14. More Info/Get Tickets

Q&A with ‘Citizen’ Director Shirley Jo Finney: “To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.”

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney is more than an acclaimed and award-winning director. She is a force of nature and spirit. To be in her presence is to plug into a deep flow  of energy, to be charged by her kinetic jolt of honesty, intensity, raw vulnerability and joy. It’s the reason why actors flock to work with her and why the Fountain Theatre so values its relationship with her. Although she continues to direct in regional theatres across the country,  the Fountain Theatre is her artistic home.

Prior to Citizen, her Fountain productions are The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, Heart Song, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Yellowman, Central Avenue and From the Mississippi Delta.  She has been honored with Ovation, LA Drama Critics  Circle, Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards for her directing.  

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

How did you first get involved in this project as director? How did it come your way? 

I had not heard about the book before it was brought to my attention and was asked by Stephen Sachs to direct the piece. He said he had read a review and excerpt in the New York Times about the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and felt that it had the makings of a theatrical work. He asked me to read it and give my impressions.

What did you think when you first read the book?

It was like walking through a door that I walk through every day of my life.

As director, what were the artistic challenges of staging the piece?

This is the third new work that I have collaborated on with Stephen. In the prior collaborations, Stephen had written linear story lines that had a clear three act structure. This did not. Conceptually creating a visual story that was non-linear was challenging. The book is poetry and reads at times like a narrative essay. The adaptation was created from the book with Stephen gleaning passages that would lend itself for stage.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

How did real-life events affect the rehearsal process? 

Unlike most works, this story was being played out in “the theater of life” with the tragic deaths of so many black lives. The shooting of the South Carolina Nine occurred while we were in rehearsals. We were constantly being impacted by the headlines. There was no separating it from our daily lives. It heightened our awareness of everyday encounters with racism. We were all evolving as Citizens.

How did you confront and speak openly about racism with your multi-racial cast? Was that delicate to honestly navigate?

In the past, when I have dealt with projects that have themes rooted within the “American Wound”, the historic conversation, and racism, I find that as difficult as that conversation may be, actors must, as a company, face their own fears and come face to face with the dark side. Confront it. Acknowledge it. So they are free to tell the emotional truth in the work.

Sharing a laugh with her cast.

Sharing a laugh with her CITIZEN cast.

What kind of actors were you looking for in the casting process?

Their training. That when they say “yes” to a project, they are committed and willing to experience whatever discomfort the project raises. I have been fortunate that the Universe brought the right group of actors to this project. Creative, open-hearted, generous, intelligent and fearless.

Can you describe your process as a director? Your approach with actors?

As a director, it is up to me to create a safe place of trust. I love actors and I live for the process and playing in the creative playground with them. There is nothing like the relationship between director and actor. There is a zone, a dance, that is experienced through discovery of human behavior.

What kind of experience do you hope the audience will have with Citizen? 

We have created something we are proud to present, knowing that it will have an impact with our audience and do what Claudia’s book intended. To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.

The World Stage Premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric opens Aug 1st. 

MORE INFO/GET TICKETS