Category Archives: African American

Director Shirley Jo Finney: The healing power of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’

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Lisa Pescia, Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Monnae Michaell, Tony Maggio  in The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The journey of veteran director Shirley Jo Finney to the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s Block Party with The Fountain Theatre’s Citizen: An American Lyric began two and a half years ago, when Fountain co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs called to ask her if she had read Claudia Rankine’s New York Times bestseller Citizen. Or maybe it began in 1997, when Finney directed her first of eight works at the Fountain. Or perhaps decades earlier when, as a recent MFA graduate of UCLA, Finney participated in Center Theatre Group’s New Work Festival at the Mark Taper Forum. Or really long before that, when Finney grew up in a segregated neighborhood and attended all-white schools where she was the only person of color.

In 2015, Sachs told Finney he was considering adapting Citizen for the stage, and that she was the right director for the project. “I read it, and I went, ‘Oh, this is my life,'” said Finney, recognizing her own experiences of “walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or ‘other,’ and what you have to swallow in order to survive.”

Citizen premiered at the Fountain in August 2015; last summer, Finney directed it again at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, just one year after the city was devastated by a deadly assault that took the lives of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every performance was followed by a discussion with the audience. “We felt it was necessary while that community was still healing and that wound was oozing,” said Finney.

There will also be Stage & Audience Talks after every performance at the Douglas, where Citizen is onstage April 28 – May 7, 2017. Citizen touched audiences deeply in Los Angeles in 2015, but much has changed since then—for the cast and crew and for the audience.

The Fountain Theatre production of "Citizen: An American Lyric," at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, America - 30 April 2017

Shirley Jo Finney

“As human beings we’ve been living our lives…we all evolve,” said Finney of herself and the company. “At the same time, in those two years, there has been a transformation in the collective. I’m interested to see, now, how it’s going to land with our audiences. Because what was maybe specific to a tribe has now expanded…something has been awakened, because ‘the other,’ now, is everyone.” The election, said Finney, “fractured what our belief system is about being an American and being a citizen, and what that culpability and responsibility is.” She added, “Not only do you have to say, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ But also, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?'”

The re-staging at the Douglas offers an opportunity for the show to make a bigger impact in other ways as well. “My designer is excited because we have the height now onstage that we didn’t have in the [Fountain]. Our projections are going to have the impact that we wanted to have,” said Finney.

“I think it’s a healing piece with a historical narrative, and we need it at this point in time,” she concluded. “When you look at what we need as human beings, the three things, if you cut everything away, are: we need to be seen, we need to feel nurtured, and we need to feel safe. Citizen, I think, makes us aware and opens that space for that healing to begin.”

Citizen: An American Lyric is now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to May 7th.

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This post originally appeared in CTG News & Blogs

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First preview tonight for Fountain’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at Kirk Douglas Theatre

2 horizontal B&WCenter Theatre Group‘s Block Party continues with the opening of The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” this Sunday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Based on a book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, “Citizen: An American Lyric” will begin previews tonight April 28 and continue for 11 performances only through May 7, 2017.

Block Party highlights some of the remarkable work being done in other, more intimate theatres throughout Los Angeles by fully producing three previously staged productions. The three productions receive the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production. Block Party began with the Coeurage Theatre production of “Failure: A Love Story” April 14 through 23 and will continue with The Echo Theater Company’s production of “Dry Land” running May 12 through 21.

“Citizen: An American Lyric” fuses poetry, prose, movement, music and the video image in a provocative stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s internationally acclaimed book of poetry about everyday acts of racism in America. Of Rankine’s “Citizen,” The New Yorker wrote that it was “brilliant… [and] explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected.” The New York Times wrote that “Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanisms against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves.”

The cast of “Citizen: An American Lyric” includes Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Monnae Michaell, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. Scenic and projection design is by Yee Eun Nam, costume design is by Naila Aladdin-Sanders, lighting design is by Pablo Santiago and original music and sound design is by Peter Bayne. Anastasia Coon is the movement director and Shawna Voragen is the production stage manager.

Audiences are also invited to engage in discussion with the “Citizen” cast and company following each performance during moderated Stage Talks. There will be no Stage Talk held on opening night.

Fountain Theatre’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ chosen for CTG’s Block Party at Kirk Douglas Theatre

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‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed and award-winning world stage premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric  by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, has been chosen by Center Theatre Group for the inaugural Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney,  Citizen will begin previews on April 28, open April 30 and close May 7.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with CTG on its first-ever Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre,” said Sachs. “It’s particularly meaningful to us that ‘Citizen’ was chosen because racism and white dominance in America is as timely now, since the election, as it ever was. The project also reflects the diversity of our work at the Fountain Theatre.”

The Fountain Theatre’s world stage premiere of Citizen earned rave reviews and an extended run in 2015. The Los Angeles Times heralded it as “Powerful” and highlighted it Critic’s Choice. Stage Raw declared it “a transcendent theatrical experience,” later honoring Stephen Sachs with the Stage Raw Theatre Award for Best Adaptation.

The original cast featured Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick, Lisa Pescia. The extended run included Monnae Michaell, Karen Malina White, and Nikki Crawford.

A meditation on race that fuses poetry, prose, movement, music and the video image,  Citizen: An American Lyric is a provocative stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s internationally acclaimed book of poetry about everyday acts of racism in America. Of Rankine’s Citizen, The New Yorker wrote that it was “brilliant… explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected.” The New York Times wrote that “Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanisms against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves.”

Center Theatre Group received seventy-six submissions for its new Block Party program and selected three local intimate theatre productions. It will also remount Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins, and Echo Theater Company’s production of Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel.  Each production will have a two-week run presented April 14 through May 21, 2017.

The selected shows will receive the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production. Full casting will be announced at a later date. Tickets will go on sale to the general public in February.

Fountain actresses are now conquering television and breaking barriers

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Simone Missick, Taraji P. Henson, and Tina Lifford

They are, first and foremost, talented actresses now starring in some of the most popular shows on television. They are strong women conquering an industry dominated by men. They are women of color leading a new wave of diversity now finally being demonstrated on TV screens. And they are all members of the Fountain Family, seen in acclaimed productions on our intimate Fountain stage   

Simone Missick is now taking TV by storm co-starring as Misty Knight on the new Netflix series Marvel’s Luke Cage. She plays the first black female superhero in the history of television. The new series is now being seen in 180 countries.  There is already talk of giving Simone her own series in a Misty Knight spinoff. 

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Simone Missick as Misty Knight in ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’

Simone’s launch to TV stardom is the stuff of local LA theatre legend. She was catapulted from acting in a play at the intimate Fountain Theatre to co-starring in a new popular television series as an iconic Marvel superhero. It’s the kind of plucking from obscurity to stardom of which most actors dream. 

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Simone Missick in ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

Simone got the call to audition for the series while appearing on stage at the Fountain Theatre in our 2015 hit production of Citizen: An American Lyric. Shuttling back and forth between auditioning for the TV role and performing weekends at the Fountain, she knew it was a longshot. Suffering from a head cold, she flew to New York one final time to audition and test for the part. Sworn to secrecy by TV producers, Simone couldn’t share details with her Fountain cast about the role she was up for. But we knew it was big and important. We all waited. 

Then she got word.    

“I got a call from Jeph Loeb who was the head of Marvel. He kind of just said, ‘Prepare for your life to change,’” says Simone. “And what does that even mean for an actor who’s been working, doing theatre and short films in LA for 10 years? You can just never anticipate when that call is going to come, what it will really be. It was amazing.”

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Tina Lifford

Tina Lifford was also on stage at the Fountain with Simone in the same production of Citizen: An American Lyric. She now co-stars as Violet Bordelon, an aunt to the three estranged Bordelon siblings on OWN’s acclaimed drama Queen Sugar. The new series was  created, directed and executive produced by Ava DuVernay. Oprah Winfrey also serves as executive producer.  

Queen Sugar is groundbreaking. It is produced by a black-owned network and overseen by two black women—one who owns the network (Winfrey) and the other (DuVernay) as showrunner, head writer and director. All of the directors guiding every episode in season one have been women.  

“It’s exciting that we get to represent the excellence that is living in people of color,” says Tina. “The excellence that hasn’t necessarily had a platform before, which is why Ava is championing the whole inclusive movement. She is saying, there’s all of these stories and talents in every face of talent-making to tell those stories, and we’re going to show you who they are. That’s exciting.”

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Taraji P. Henson was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She now stars as Cookie Lyon on the smash hit Fox series Empire, for which she won a Golden Globe Award and has twice been nominated for an Emmy. In 2016, Time magazine named Henson one of the 100 most influential people in the world on the annual Time 100 list.

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Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on ‘Empire’

Taraji appeared in our Fountain west coast premiere of The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove. She has maintained her connection with the Fountain Family, seeing Fountain productions and visiting with our casts and companies after performances. 

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Taraji P. Henson and the cast of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’

The Los Angeles Times has dubbed Diarra Kilpatrick as “a force of nature”. She is not only a dynamic actress. She is a gifted writer and ambitious creator. Her American Koko digital series, originally produced for her YouTube channel, received the Best Web Series Award at the American Black Film Festival and was lauded as a “Web Series You Should Be Watching” by Essence Magazine. ABC’s streaming service ABCd has now acquired American Koko, with Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Viola Davis producing.

“Diarra is an exceptional talent in that she cannot be put in a category,” says Davis. “She has a unique voice that transcends her generation.”

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Diarra Kilpatrick “In the Red and Brown Water”

Diarra starred in the Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed and award-winning Los Angeles Premiere of Tarell McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water. Diarra played Oya, a lightning-fast runner, in the stunning and lyrical drama. Since that dazzling production, Diarra has been sprinting ever since.  She is now also developing The Climb for Amazon. She will write and star in the project.   

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Deidrie Henry on ‘Game of Silence’

The list of Fountain actresses goes on. Deidrie Henry has mesmerized audiences in such Fountain productions as Yellowman and Coming Home. She co-starred as Detective Liz Winters on the NBC TV series Game of Silence and is the national TV commercial character Annie for Popeyes.  Monnae Michaell (Citizen: An American Lyric) plays Nina on the new TV series The Good Place. Tonya Pinkins (And Her Hair Went With Her) is Ethel Peabody on the television show Gotham. Tinashe Kajese will be seen in the upcoming TV movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Fountain veterans Tracie Thoms, Karen Malina White, Juanita Jennings, Adenrele Ojo are seen often on TV. 

“I’m always thrilled to see one of our actors, any actor, male or female, succeed in the film and TV industry,” says Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “But to see these extraordinary women achieve these accomplishments and create change, knowing that they come from our Fountain Family, makes me even more delighted and proud.” 

Fountain Theatre earns 4 NAACP Theatre Award nominations

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Matthew Hancock and Jennifer Finch in “I and You”.

The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed 2015 productions of Lauren Gunderson’s I and You and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine have earned four NAACP Theatre Award nominations for productions presented between January – December, 2015.

The NAACP Theatre Awards is presented by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Branch in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles City Council President/Councilmember District 10 Herb Wesson, Jr. and co-chaired by Byron K. Reed, Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo-West Region Community Relations, and Jeffrey Rush of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.

“We’re always pleased to be acknowledged by the NAACP theatre committee,” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “We have a long and successful history of supporting and presenting the work of a rich variety of artists on our stage. Diversity and inclusion is at the core of our artistic mission.”

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‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

The mission of the NAACP Theatre Awards is to entertain, educate, and inspire the community and create diversity in the arts and entertainment industry. To honor LA theatre artists and celebrate live theatre in Los Angeles.

This year, the Fountain Theatre has received the following nominations:

  • Best Lead Male – Matthew Hancock, I and You
  • Best Choreography – Anastasia Coon, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • Best Lighting – Jeremy Pivnick, I and You
  • Best Set Design – Tom Buderwitz, I and You

The awards show will be held on Monday, November 21, 2016, at 6:00 p.m. at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. More info.

Claudia Rankine, author of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’, wins 2016 MacArthur ‘genius’ Award

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‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

by Carolyn Kellogg

Poet Claudia Rankine was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship grant for her work that engages with contemporary American culture, particularly issues of race. Her most recent book, 2014’s  “Citizen,” racked up stacks of awards for its searing take on the personal and political, including the death of Trayvon Martin. Rankine, who taught for many years at Pomona College, is now on the faculty at Yale University. We talked to her about the MacArthur grant and what it means for her work.

What was it like hearing about the award?

It’s very exciting, very surprising, which makes it more exciting.

I’m in my mid-50s. This is an incredible honor, but I’ve been lucky enough to get my work done with or without it. So I feel like having this award given to me at this point in my career, I think in my own imagination, what else? It makes me want to do even more in terms of the subject of my work.

The subject of “Citizen” is, in part, the death of black men in America. And that subject is renewed again as we’re talking. I wonder if you could address that.

To me, the getting of this honor is a kind of recognition, obviously a monetary recognition, which is helpful. But it’s also for me the culture saying: We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you. And that, to me, is encouraging. The MacArthur is given to my subject through me. The subject of trying to change the discourse of black people being equated with criminality and murdered inside a culture where white fear has justified the continued incarceration, murder of blacks and other people of color. I do feel like I am just incidental in a certain way to the prize, and that the prize is being given to the subject — that I am completely invested in.

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Claudia Rankine at Fountain Theatre

Could you talk about your ongoing creative project?

Before I was notified about the MacArthur I had been in the process of putting together with Casey Llewellyn,  and a number of writers and artists, the Racial Imaginary Institute. Which for us is an interdisciplinary arts and cultural laboratory for the dismantling of white dominance. One of the things I think the culture needs is an actual location where writers and artists and thinkers can come together and put pressure on the language that makes apparent white supremacy and white dominance. I think a lot of us are working separately on these subjects, but it would be nice to have a Racial Imaginary Institute that really has as its goal the dismantling of white supremacy. That each of us can go at it inside of our fields. If you’re a writer, you have the benefit of talking to other artists who are interested in the subject. What are we missing? What isn’t getting said? What are the narratives of white greatness that disallow other things to be brought to the surface? I’m very excited about the creation of the institute, the making of the space, the notion that culturally we’ll know where to go to have these discussions, to actively look at the absences and the erasures around the construction of race, especially the construction of whiteness in America.

Where will it be?

Right now we’re looking for a space, but I assume it will be in New York City. Right now we exist as people with a mission and a name. And with work [the essay collection “The Racial Imaginary” was published by Fence Books in 2015].

When you heard about this award, did you think, I’m buying an island and we’ll have our institute!

No, I think that it’s the kind of thing we’ll have to work toward getting funding for. Not even the MacArthur money can put something into the world like that. I really believe that the culture can change the way we think. Right now we have a media culture, television culture, pop culture that still moves forward on many assumptions around whiteness that we all know to be erroneous and hurtful. I think that this institute could begin to make products — books, give talks, present readings, make art — that shifts the understanding into a place that reflects an actual reality rather than the constructed realities around whiteness.

Tell me a little about the aesthetics underlying your work.

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Stephen Sachs, Claudia Rankine, Shirley Jo Finney

I’m committed to an interdisciplinary investigation of cultural dynamics. The reason I will forever identify as a poet is because I think poetry is the one genre that privileges feelings. And so no matter what I’m working on, I’m also interested in the impact of the reality with the human psyche. So for me, the work has to bring the reality up against the experience of the reality. And all of my work is how do you get that to be apparent, and apparent in language? The felt experience. For example, right now we know that 60% of African Americans and Latinos live in communities where you have toxic-waste sites. Now that’s a fact. But how do I get that to be a lived experience inside a work of art? That’s the challenge as a writer and as an art-maker. How do you get the piece of art to enact a discussion that feels plausible inside your own living room? Right now I’m working on a play that draws from “Citizen.” The real challenge is how do you bring the kinds of conversations around race that happen at 7 o’clock over the dinner table onto the stage? So that when you go to the theater to see it, you know you’ve had that conversation.

So that there’s a kind of recognition.

There has to be recognition. One has to step into the moment as a lived experience. Even if the circumstances seem foreign, the experience needs to connect as a known realm on the emotional level.

Adapted by Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed 2015 stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric was heralded Critic’s Choice in the LA Times, and won the Stage Raw Award for Best Stage Adaptation.

Carolyn Kellogg lives in Los Angeles and is an award-winning LA Times staff writer who covers books and authors and publishing. This post originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. 

PHOTOS: Opening young eyes and minds at heartfelt matinee of ‘My Mañana Comes’

SS pix 001How does theatre dramatize important social, political and cultural issues in a way that is compelling and meaningful? Can a play bring to life the challenges of immigration and the struggle of undocumented workers in a story that reveals the human being behind the stereotype? Isn’t it remarkable how the magic of theatre pulls us into the personal lives of these colorful characters in this play and then delivers a heart-stopping blow at the end that forces you to examine your own belief systems about yourself?

These compelling questions — and more — were some of the topics raised in a heartfelt Q&A discussion with the cast following yesterday’s matinee performance of My Mañana Comes. The audience included young people and adults from The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, a non-profit organization that makes theatre accessible to low income youth and adults. The program also uses theatre as a vehicle to create community and empower, educate and give artistic voice to young people.

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My Mañana Comes is a funny and powerful new play about four busboys — three Mexican, one African American — in a upscale restaurant who battle issues of immigration, fair pay for labor, and chasing the American Dream. The play utilizes fast-paced dialogue and slang in both English and Spanish. That same diversity was reflected in the cultural mix at yesterday’s Q&A when the discussion was conducted and translated in both Spanish and English.

The interchange between artists and young people in the community was made possible through the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program, Theatre as a Learning Tool, which provides the life-enhancing experience of live theatre to underserved young people throughout Southern California.

“Our goal at the Fountain is to use the power of theatre to put a human face on the social, political and cultural issues of our day,” says Co-Artistic Director Stephen. “And to open the eyes and minds and hearts of young people. There is nothing more rewarding than making theatre available to those in our community who otherwise have little or no access to what theatre can do.”