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. 


Photo Slideshow: ‘Citizen’ cast celebrates exhilarating first preview performance at the Fountain Theatre


‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

The first performance of a new work in front of an audience is always charged with a wide variety of electrifying feelings. Sunday afternoon at the Fountain was no different when our world premiere stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric launched its first preview and audiences were able to experience the provocative new piece for the first time. Buy all accounts, it was an exhilarating success.

Kato Cooks

Kato Cooks

“Easily, it is the most profound, emotionally engaging production I have experienced in decades,” exclaimed longtime Fountain Family member Kato Cooks.  “It brought me to tears, wringing blood from my soul. It spoke aloud what many of us only consider privately, afraid to give our introspection, these ruminations, these voices. Tears welled in my eyes as the intense performances drained me. Every moment, every actor sublime. I must experience this one a few times with different sets of friends.”

Kato’s compelling experience was clearly shared by others in the audience at the  Sunday matinée. At one moment in the middle of the performance, an audience member was so jarred and engaged in the events unfolding between characters on stage that she actually vocally called out, “Did she really just say that?” The rest of the audience — and the actors on stage — laughed heartily at her honest, spontaneous vocal reaction. It was one of those unplanned truthful shared moments in live theatre that is cherished and we’ll always remember.  Sunday’s first preview received a standing ovation. 

‘Citizen’ Cast Celebrates First Preview

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Citizen: An American Lyric is the world stage premiere of the internationally acclaimed book about race in America by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney, the play features Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. Previews continue through July 31. It opens August 1st.  

More Info/Get Tickets  





Meet ‘Citizen’ Author Claudia Rankine at Fountain Theatre on August 2nd

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine

Performance Followed by Q&A and Book Signing

Author Claudia Rankine will attend the world premiere stage adaptation of her book, Citizen: An American Lyric on Sunday, August 2nd at 3pm at the Fountain Theatre. There will be a Q&A Talkback with the author immediately after the performance, followed by a book signing reception.

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

“I am excited and looking forward to seeing it,” exclaims the author, who has been traveling on a whirlwind international tour promoting her book. She was in Paris last week reading selections from Citizen to  rapt crowds at the famed bookstore Shakespeare and Company. A rock star excitement ripped through the large gathering of fans who flocked to see and hear Rankine. Her book about race in America is an international sensation, earning numerous awards in the United States and the United Kingdom including recently being named a finalist for The Forward, the UK’s top prize in poetry collection.

Rankine will be at the Fountain Theatre on August 2nd to enjoy the matinee performance of Citizen: An American Lyric at 3pm.  Immediately after the performance, she will be joined on stage by adaptor Stephen Sachs, director Shirley Jo Finney and the Citizen cast for a Q&A Talkback discussion with the audience.  This will be followed by a book signing reception with the author. Copies of the book are on sale at the Fountain for the author to sign. 

CITIZEN color logo

The Fountain Theatre’s world premiere stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric opens Saturday, August 1st and runs to September 14th.  More Info/Get Tickets 




Claudia Rankine: With ‘Citizen’ hopes “to see my community, to understand my place in it, what it looks like, and yet stay on my street anyway”

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

by Lauren Berlant

I met Claudia Rankine in a parking lot after a reading, where I said crazy fan things like, “I think we see the same thing.” She read a book of mine and wrote me, “Reading it was like weirdly hearing myself think.” This exchange is different from a celebration of intersubjectivity: neither of us believes in that . Too much noise of racism, misogyny, impatience, and fantasy to weed out. Too much unshared lifeworld—not just from the difference that racial experience makes but also in our relations to queerness, to family, to sickness and to health, to poverty and wealth—while all along wondering in sympathetic ways about the impact of citizenship’s embodiment. Plus, it takes forever to get to know someone and, even then, we are often surprised—by ourselves, by each other. Claudia and I have built a friendship through consultation about whether our tones are crazy, wrong, off, or right; about whether or not our observations show something, and what. And, through frankness: a form of being reliable that we can trust, hard-edged as it can be, loving as it can be (and sometimes the former is easier to take than the latter). We are both interested in how writing can allow us to amplify overwhelming scenes of ordinary violence while interrupting the sense of a fated stuckness. This interview, conducted via email, walks around how we think with and against the convenience of conventionally immiserated forms of life and art.

Experimental work always forces us to imagine analogous genres around it: Citizen: An American Lyric , Rankine’s new book, has the same subtitle as her previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004). That’s one route to take. Each is like a commentary track on the bottom of a collective television screen where the ordinary of racism meets a collective nervous system’s desire for events to be profoundly transformative. Both books have tender, sustaining intimacies. Citizen also acts as a kind of art gallery playing out the aesthetics of supremacist sterility, each segment being like a long, painfully white hall we’re walking down, punctuated by stunning images of black intensity and alterity. And then come some moments of relieving care, not just with people but also in the very fact that an aesthetic encounter can make you feel that you have a world to breathe in, after all. Or that you don’t. In the director’s cut of Citizen , many pages ended with the forward slash (/) we associate with the end of the line in a cited poem. On Rankine’s page this / designated the previous writing as a line of poetry embedded in a history captured through citation. These slashes were deleted at the end of the process, but do not forget to read for the breathless cut and join of enjambment, as it figures the core intimate fact of relation in Rankine’s Citizen .

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant What kind of tone do you associate with the word citizen? I ask this because the book Citizen is so much about tone—of voice, atmosphere, history—the unsaids (James Baldwin’s “questions hidden by the answers”), the saids, the spaces within a conversation holding up the encounter both in the sense of sustaining it and of blocking it …

Claudia Rankine Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. Yours is a good question because it presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!

LB “A blanket or a gun”! What a narrow margin. There’s not a lot of laughter in Citizen. No doubt, that sense motivates your use of the word maneuver—it means, etymologically, “to work with one’s hands,” but it’s usually a way of talking about unsticking something, getting around an impasse or an obstacle course, or dealing with touchy subjects. It’s a word for the delicacy of manner that people develop while trying not to incite unwonted violence.

So yes, tone maneuvers. I might have said alternatively that tone adjusts, pointing to arcs of implied communication and to the spontaneous action of shaping the event while losing and regaining our footing. Your view of it is more intentional. For sure to notice tone is to experience it as a pressure on consciousness. You are very interested in what tone does. The action of the mind’s hands as they move through the air of the encounter. (Thoreau: “My head is hands and feet.”)

This must be what ballasts Citizen’s great phrase about your being “too tired even to turn on any of your devices,” which is metapoetic but also implies that the maneuver of tone is one of your citizen-actions, a weapon for resisting defeat and depletion in the face of the supremacist ordinary. The you that you use that also sometimes means I and we, needs such devices to defend, refuse, and reinvent the ordinary, despite, as you say, being sick with John Henryism and other maladies of the racially subordinated. The more devices the better—Citizen meditates on counter-uses of the pronoun, the metaphor, the catastrophic event, and the wedging phrase. Take the repeated tag, “What did you say?” It’s tone that reroutes the damaging verbal exchange from its target into the shared space of a disowned violence.  Continue reading

Fountain Theatre Awarded Grant to Develop New Play About Homeboy’s Father Gregory Boyle

Father Gregory Boyle

Father Gregory Boyle

Playwright Luis Alfaro to Write New Play on LA Icon

The Fountain Theatre has been awarded a grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission in the amount of $27,700 to support the creation, development and world premiere of a new play about the life and work of Father Gregory Boyle, founder of HomeBoy Industries

“We’re thrilled to develop this new play that dramatizes the crusade of such a Los Angeles treasure,” beamed Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “This project has been in the works for some time. We thank the LA County Arts Commission for granting us the support it needed to get underway.”  

The two-year project is the creation, development and public presentation of the world premiere of a new play dramatizing the life and work of Los Angeles icon Father Gregory Boyle and his nationally-recognized crusade to change the lives of young people in gangs. In 2001, Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, now one of the largest and most successful gang intervention programs in the nation. Acclaimed Latino playwright Luis Alfaro will be commissioned to write the new work. Alfaro will spend several months interviewing Father Boyle and gang members in the program. He will write a new script based on the material he gathers, culminating in the public presentation of the play performed by professional actors and Homeboy members.

World Stage Premiere of ‘Citizen’ reveals that being black is not the problem

Tina Lifford

Tina Lifford

Actress Tina Lifford Chronicles the Creative Process

by Tina Lifford

It’s too much. It’s too much! I could be talking about Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church or the racist incidences of this past week, when African American churches in the South burned to the ground. However, I am not talking about these tragedies, at least not directly.

It’s too much. It’s too much, are lines from a new play that I’m in rehearsals for, about the subtle everyday experiences and burdens of racism that we all perpetrate.

CITIZEN: An American Lyric, written by Claudia Rankine and winner of four awards, will have its World Premiere at the Fountain Theatre, in Hollywood, between August 1 and September 14. I said yes to Stephen Sachs, Co-Artistic Director at the Fountain Theatre, when he called because something inside of me instructed me to jump in. I will be taking you on the journey of exploring racism through the lens of working on this play as an artist, and as an inner fitness trainer focused on emotional healing.

Traditionally, day one of mounting a play begins with the cast doing a table read of the play. The entire creative team gathers around a long table, and the actors read the play out loud. But, in our case, award-winning director Shirley Jo Finney broke with tradition. Her first order of business was to have us talk about racism!

Cast of 'Citizen" have table talk.

Cast of ‘Citizen” have table talk.

For artists, it is a given that when we say “yes” to a project, we are saying yes to exploring our own relationship with the project’s theme. Everyone at the table knew we were signing on to dig into our own racist conditioning. The cast of five black actors and two white ones stepped into the quagmire.

Lisa Pescia

Lisa Pescia

Our conversation traversed the familiar ground of difficult memories and hurt feelings. Then we talked about our reactions to color. I saw the white female cast member, Lisa Pescia, take a deep breath before saying, “I’m from the South, so yes, color is the first thing I see. I don’t believe people when they say they don’t see color. When I meet you, I see if you are black or Jewish or Asian. How can you not?”

Later, in the parking lot, Lisa told me that her heart was racing when she shared. She worried that telling the truth in the company of her black cast mates was politically incorrect.

But in the room, her truth did not alienate. It helped us bond. It opened the conversation and gave everyone permission to be honest. I wondered if this was the first place to start in taking a fresh approach to the well-worn subject of racism.

What each human being wants most of all is the right to share their feelings and be heard and respected. We foster connection with others when we enter encounters with openness and respect instead of with judgment or fear.

Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Shirley Jo Finney

Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Shirley Jo Finney

If we begin by giving one another the space to share themselves, maybe we’ll wind up bumping into other discoveries along the way. Maybe we’ll realize that how we have felt up until now is a way in which we have learned to feel or been programmed to feel. Maybe when we feel safe enough to talk about how we feel, we’ll discover memories and truths underneath our surface feelings that better explain why we feel as we do.

Discovery of what lives inside empowers our ability to make change. We can’t change what we can’t see. This is one of the core messages in CITIZEN.

A black actor who dropped out of the play the following day due to family obligations made this statement: “Who would want to be black?” My immediate thought was: I would.

Though I don’t always love the behavior of others, I love being black. I don’t really care what label you use — African American, negro, black. You can even call me colored, or change the label a few more times, and it won’t matter to me. I love the creativity, style, resilience and heart of being black. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, and I had a choice, I would come back as a Black-African-American-negro-colored women… however, I might ask for wash-and-go hair to save me from hours in a salon.

I think the idea of a black person loving the fact that they’re African American surprises many other Americans.

This brings me to a concern I have with CITIZEN: An American Lyric. There is the possibility people will walk away from the theater feeling like being black is the worst possible fate. But BEING BLACK IS NOT THE PROBLEM. Racial abuse and bullying are.

The cast of 'Citizen: An American Lyric'.

The cast of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’.

“Isms” — racism, sexism, elitism — are the abusers and bullies of humanity. Yet, it is the abused who most often have the burden of accounting for an abuser’s bad behavior. The abused make the adjustments necessary to get along with bullies and abusers — ignore or avoid them, walk on eggshells, don’t react and don’t take them personally. But our emotional makeup as humans means it’s hard not to internalize systematic abuse. Victims spend years working through the emotional wounds that result.

Provocateurs don’t get thrown into the spotlight. Bullies aren’t asked to take responsibility for their emotional violence and the loss or years of recovery they cause. Soccer champion Zinedine Zidane in an interview, after being expelled from the 2006 World Cup Final for head-butting a bully from the opposing team, eloquently says, “The culprit is the one who provokes… This must be acknowledged.” This Zidane incident is one of the vignettes that bring the stage story of CITIZEN to life.

If you have ever tried to distance yourself from a painful emotional memory, you know that getting over it and moving on usually takes a lifetime. Physical rape is finally seen for the violent, life-altering crime that it is. What will it take to make the premeditated emotional rape of one’s dignity a crime?

I hope that people who see the stage production of CITIZEN, or who read the book, don’t walk away feeling sorry for black people. Instead, I hope we will begin to see bullying and emotional abuse as violent criminal acts. Then we can hold bullies and abusers — of all races, in all walks of life and behind all closed doors — accountable.

Tina Lifford is an actress and founder of The Inner Fitness Project. Follow Tina on Twitter and Facebook

Citizen: An American Lyric opens at the Fountain Theatre  August 1st. More Info/Get Tickets

Isa’s Intern Journal: Digging for roots and finding a community

Rehearsal for 'The Better Part of 'Forever'

Rehearsal for ‘The Better Part of ‘Forever’

by Isabel Espy

cactusI grew up in a town that brushed up against a desert where not much grew except for the occasional towering cactus.  When I would come across a huge Eulychnia Acida covered in red flowers­­, it would always catch me by surprise. How could such an arid womb give birth to something so affirming?

Theatre is like a cactus. Not because it can be shockingly painful when experienced – which it can be – but because it often gives the impression of springing up out of nothing. But what I learned living next to a desert is that if you dig down around a cactus you will always find roots that can stretch for miles, connecting it to everything. And boy, does theatre have roots!

While you may see one amazing show, one brilliant performance,­­ if you dig you will find a community of passionate artists who provide lifeblood to the show. Much like the roots of cacti that hold a desert’s topsoil from beneath, a strong healthy theatre community, though often invisible, keeps the fabric of a community in place.

After 3 years in the Theatre School at UCLA I have found a hidden world of amazingly talented souls. I am a rising senior at UCLA, and I love the family of performers, designers, directors, and writers I have accumulated. What I hadn’t realized was just how far these roots extend outside and beyond UCLA’s  School of Theatre, Film and Television .  I have already run into so many people through the LA County Arts Commission  internship community and through working here that I know from the larger theatre world.

Pablo Santiago

Pablo Santiago holds his Stage Raw award

During one of my first days here at The Fountain, as I was making one of my many trips to the kitchen to refill my coffee mug, I slipped past an early design meeting for our upcoming play, Citizen: An American Lyric. I recognized Pablo Santiago, an amazing lighting designer who I have been lucky to work with on a couple shows at UCLA, and found out that he designing the lights for the show. A day or two later James Bennett asked me if I would like to read the script of The Better Part of Forever. It turns the play was written by a classmate of mine, Leland Frankel.

I met Leland my first week at UCLA, have spent many an hour working on group projects with him, and just last month accidentally crashed his graduation party. Leland knows how to throw a great soiree, but he knows how to write an even better play.

Leland Frankel

Leland Frankel

I read The Better Part of Forever on my lunch break, which shows you how absorbed I was, as usually I spend that half-­hour hopelessly trying to get a hold of my sister on Skype, my only means of reaching her in The Hague. I was so invested in The Better Part of Forever that on my commute to work the next day I found myself vaguely musing over what Jules, one of the two protagonists of the play, would do if asked to join an ice ­cream sundae eating contest. These random thoughts are usually reserved for bad TV show characters or absorbing books, and it took me a while to locate Jules within the context of Leland’s play.

Rehearsal for 'The Better Part of Forever'.

Rehearsal for ‘The Better Part of Forever’.

Anyway, last week I snuck into one of the rehearsals for The Better Part of Forever and got to catch up with Leland and watch the reading being staged. I am super excited about seeing it on the 12th of July as part of the Fountain’s Rap Dev Series, and so should you! Dig and find the roots that hold up amazing artistic work – you might just stumble upon a flowering cactus.

Don’t miss the staged reading of Leland Frankel’s  The Better  Part of Forever on July 10 & 12. Get Tickets/More Info   

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.