Category Archives: poetry

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.

Tickets/More Info 

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.

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

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre in Memory 2

‘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. 

‘Citizen’ wins 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine has won the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for poetry for her acclaimed book ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’. Our smash hit sold-out stage adaptation of Citizen by Stephen Sachs, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, has earned rave reviews, been hailed as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times and is extended to October 11.

'Citizen: An American Lyric' at the Fountain Theatre

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

The Los Angeles-based PEN Center USA Literary Awards honor work in eleven categories—fiction, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry, children’s/young adult, graphic literature, translation, journalism (print and NEW online), drama, screenplay, and teleplay—produced or published in 2015 by writers living west of the Mississippi River.

Citizen: An American Lyric extended to Oct 11th. More Info/Get Tickets

 

Author Claudia Rankine on ‘Citizen’ at the Fountain: “I had always thought the book should be a play”

Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

by Lynell George

On the American “stage” — within mainstream media and in public discourse — the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week’s headlines — a bungled arrest or denial of dignity — that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.

While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations — New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin — are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don’t move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely “behind us” is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.

“Citizen” — Rankine’s keenly alert and incisive collection of poetry, prose and imagery — was named a poetry finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and was the winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. The text is now finding another life as a stage production at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

“Citizen” carefully catalogs the ways in which casual racism permeates our day-to-day interactions — both spoken and unspoken; those “Did that really happen?” moments. These are slights, dismissals and elisions that are deeply ingrained. They are reflexive gestures — judgments — enacted upon another: the door that is not held open, the seat that is not occupied, the fumbled or “mistaken” identity. Each slip, each cut, is an obliteration.

While “Citizen” articulates this paradox — this notion of people of color rendered at once invisible and hyper-visible — Rankine’s goal was not to enumerate pain, but to expose and address “white blindness.” If we don’t — or refuse to — see it, we can’t engage in a dialogue to disassemble it. Untended, these quiet, repeated microaggressions, denials of full personhood, continue to be the contaminated roots from which these larger conflagrations grow.

Ultimately, Rankine’s book requires that we dig deeper to understand what it means to be a 21st century “citizen.” We must acknowledge what it takes to build stronger, inclusive and thus more meaningful alliances across racial and cultural lines. What is our collective responsibility? What is it that will help us to move beyond that quasi-magical-thinking wish of “moving on” and rather how to move us all collectively and meaningfully forward.

Rankine is the author of four other books including “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric,” a meditation on death and currently serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She recently departed from Pomona College in Claremont to join the faculty at USC and will begin teaching writing workshops and poetics in the English department beginning Fall 2016.

I recently caught up with Claudia Rankine in a wide-ranging discussion on the stage adaptation of “Citizen,” the microaggressions of daily life, and “racial silencing.”

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine

Lynell George: We now have a word for these small moments, the slights — microaggressions — but when you were first encountering these acts in your early years, how did you categorize them? What did you do with them when they landed?

Claudia Rankine: I think the way that I metabolize microaggressions as I was growing up — and I include my 20s and 30s and 40s in my growing up — is that I just listened. I took it in. It wasn’t a situation in which I didn’t hear what was being said. It wasn’t a situation where I was under any kind of misunderstanding around the intent or the source of the statements that were coming at me. I understood them as an assault and I felt them as an assault, but I didn’t respond to them. And that’s part of what drove me to want to write about them.

It’s the sense that there was another thing in play, and even when we know what’s happening, we don’t feel empowered to call it out. And I think we are brought up to be good and have good manners. To not make other people uncomfortable and to understand that by putting our own comfort in the forefront we might create a situation that is uncomfortable. But the consequence is that you carry a lot of stress in your body and all of a sudden your digestive system is given the role of metabolizing it. So I think that I had to grow into the recognition that it was actually okay to feel that my own comfort was worth the attention.

Claudia Rankine signs books at the Fountain Theatre

Claudia Rankine signs books at the Fountain Theatre

LG: You’re right, there has been this impulse to be polite — or mask it. As a survival tactic, it seems we have developed these ways to hide our anger, frustration even when we were/are telling people off.

CR: But even that way, that kind of throwing shade with congeniality, I think that even that should be given up, I think that it is okay for us to embrace our anger. There is this great line by Thomas Jefferson where he refers to blacks, where he says, “Their griefs are transient.” So just that idea. What allows the white imagination to even articulate something like that is that sense that they don’t even have to bear the brunt of the stress that is caused by their actions. So I’m interested in the full recognition of someone’s emotional state and having the freedom to live while black. To live fully as a human being without having to recuperate goodness relative to white stereotypes about blackness. That’s the rhetoric.

LG: It’s even embedded in the language of pop culture where black women in particular are viewed as exceptional in their ability to shoulder whatever is thrown their way — “She can handle all of this — anything because she’s ‘fierce.’ To me the power of “Citizen” is that it shifts the power — in italicizing and naming these off-hand moments — the speaker is no longer the victim. There is power in turning the moment around and on its head. Did you feel a power shift as you were writing this?

CR: I don’t know if I felt it as a shift in power. For me the interest was not in exhibiting black pain. We know it exists. I’m black. I wasn’t interested in exhibiting black pain and performing that. It was not at all at the center of the writing. I was more interested in sort of the white liberal imagination insisting they don’t understand why things happen: they don’t understand how Katrina could have happened. They don’t understand how these killings are happening and yet they are the same ones who forget to open the door if you happen to be a black woman. And they are the same ones who refuse to sit next to you if you happen to be a black man. So I am much more interested in looking at that. Looking at white liberalism and the gap in its own recognition of the ways in which it is implicated in the continuance of white supremacist thinking.

LG: I was thinking as I was moving through the book, I could mirror many of these conversations/interactions, but what also becomes clear in “Citizen” is the pervasiveness of this dismissal. It’s another erasure when someone responds, “Well, let me give you an example when that happens to me.” The subtext is: “Well it might not mean what you think…” It’s minimizing and dismissive.

CITIZEN color logo

CR: Well, I think there is such anxiety in the white imagination around feeling guilt, implicated — whatever. The refusal is in the looking. And whiteness is not used to looking at itself as invested in certain norms in order to keep a certain positioning. That’s part of the culture. You can’t blame individuals because inasmuch as there is systemic racism there is systemic white privilege and the white privileging. In other words, you’re not even white, you’re just “normal” — and you’re just a “normal” human being — and [so] how you think or feel is actually where the level playing-field begins. So I think white people tend to believe that: Oh if I say, ‘I don’t think about race’ that must be true, because, I’m normal. I’m the norm. And yet they are making decisions based on race all the time.

LG: You mentioned earlier that these incidents themselves made you decide that you wanted to embark on this journey, the writing. What was the seed? How did it begin to take shape?

CR: Different parts of the book happened in different ways, so the incidents that accumulate in the opening were probably the last thing, not the first. And that was probably my moment of anthropology. I mean, I literally called up my friends and asked: Can you tell me a moment when race interrupted something you expected to be without incident? Was there some interaction with a colleague or a friend, when you were just doing something very ordinary, when suddenly the moment of scandal happened — because race was brought into that moment? So once I began to collect those, they just kind of stockpiled.

The others — the situation-text scripts, those came out of actual events. Katrina happened and then I worked on a piece. So it was more like that for those pieces. Those were years in the making. And then the more lyric pieces, I just write those when I write them.

LG: There is a beautiful exploration of the symbolism of Serena Williams on the tennis court — and both how she floats in both the tennis world and the American imagination.

CR: I have always been interested in Serena Williams and Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in terms of the ways in which racism plays itself out in sports. Especially as a black woman watching this other amazing black woman be treated again and again and again with almost 18th century thinking and rhetoric and the insistence on that was — and is — remarkable. In fact, did you see the piece this morning on Serena? It’s a piece I wrote for the New York Times. It was a really great chance to sit down and organize all of the information I had collected over the years as a fan, basically. I had been watching these things happen and I thought: What happens when you just put them down one after another after another after another after another? So the organization of the essay, replicated the organization of the book in terms of what happens when these moments build. Some of them might not have to do with racism, but it doesn’t matter because there is so much precedence, that it might as well have to do with racism… I think even I was surprised at just how consistently she was assaulted on the court over the years. You know the incidents, but when you begin to see them one after the other and then the other and the other it really is stunning.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke in “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

LG: Yes, and there is the moment in the book where you react for her. You are appalled by all that she has shouldered. She has had to internalize so much and rise above it and win…

CR: If anything that I have learned from Serena Williams is that the way to deal with what is put in front of you is to deal with what is put in front of you and not to be silenced in the face [by] assault by fantasies of good behavior for black people. I think that has silenced us in the past, because one doesn’t want to play into expectations of rageful black bodies — as if something is not causing the rage, as if we are just out there raging away without anyone assaulting us.

LG: Right and by now, you’ve heard about the Black women’s book group being kicked off the Napa Wine Train… I mean really?

CR: Yes, everyone can laugh — but not you…

LG: Even our joy is restricted. You can’t be angry, you can’t laugh. It’s such a small space we’re expected to occupy emotionally…

CR: Exactly.

LG: The book of course has garnered wide attention, won many important prizes, and yet we are in this moment of such a degraded dialogue around race and such soul-crushing race-related violence. It seems for those reaching for your book, that we collectively want to find ways to close that gap and yet this has been such a long stretch of retrograde thought and action around the subject of race.

CR: I think it’s heartening because people are saying: Well, I see that this is a problem too. And it’s not a state that we actually want. I think many Americans, and many white Americans, are distressed with what’s going on and the difference is that whiteness is not used to interrogating whiteness.

I think it’s complicated. I think with many white policeman, there are some who are just really mean and racist and who want the death of black people, and then there are others who have no idea how our [country’s] white supremacist beginnings continue to control their own imagination. They are reacting sincerely to fears that are not located in the body in front of them, but rather in their heads. And I don’t doubt that they would pass lie detector tests if you asked them “Were you afraid of that guy?” But does that mean that the guy did anything to make them fearful?

I think that the interest in the book, is more than an interest in the book, and is an interest in that dynamic. We can see that there is a problem. How, perhaps, we are implicated in that problem is not as easy to see.

LG: This seems like a good moment to slip over to the play and the challenge of staging these complex voicings of — shadings — of interior thought. Stephen Sachs, the co-artistic director at the Fountain Theatre was the person who approached you. What was your initial thought?

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke in “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

CR: Actually, I had always thought the book should be a play. It came out of voices so it made sense to me that it could find a life on the stage. So when Stephen approached me I was excited by it. I had some anxieties about the investment or the positioning of the material in the book. Partly some of the things that I’d mentioned before. I was less interested in the staging of black pain and more interested in the staging of white implication in those dynamics. So that, I think, was an issue. But I was very excited that he wanted to adapt the play and I loved the adaptation that he did. He stayed very true to the text. It was more a masterful arranging and editing of the material. So the language is all the language of the text. In that way I appreciated the sensitivity that he brought into the material in terms of editing it.

LG: At what point were you able to see a script?

CR: I went to a reading early on. Initially, [I] was a little worried about the material being pushed over into melodrama because for me the problem is that what is insidious about this day-to-day racism is how ordinary it is. And the way in which, for the black or brown body, is something that is survivable even as it is not survivable. For example, in Sandra Bland’s case, the interaction with the policeman was survivable, but who knows at what point in her own psyche she is: how stressed the woman is, she’s making a major move. Yet another assault might be the one that’s the hardest to take, if in fact she did take her own life. So that’s the thing if you portray them as these heightened moments of scandal and interact with them as scandal rather than as the day-to-day quotidian interactions of Americans…

LG: They see it as “apart from” rather than “part of” the fiber/weave of day-to-day life.

CR: Exactly.

Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio and Simone Missick perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.

Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio and Simone Missick in “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

LG: Part of the actors’ preparation, I’d heard, was that they were encouraged to share incidents that had occurred in their own lives as a way to begin to interact with the material — did that inform/shape the text/script as well?

CR: The actors as an ensemble work incredibly well together and I think that the director, Shirley Jo’s direction, helped to create that bond inasmuch it created a field of empathy on the stage, because you’re also able to say: “Oh, my God yes, that also happened to you?” and “I can see now how I perhaps did that or said this.” So I think that that is fantastic in the way she was able to bring the actors to the material but to find the material in themselves and bring that forward into the portrayal of the role.

LG: Also in terms of the production’s timing, the show was opening right around the anniversary of Ezell Ford’s 2011 police-involved shooting and the 50th anniversary of the Watts rebellion, so these audiences arrived with all of this as a backdrop here in Los Angeles. Where there any audience discussions that you were able to sit in on where these news events and their emotional impact came up?

CR: I have only been to one talk-back and much of it had to do with people either coming to a recognition that, ‘Whoa, these are events that have been in my own life.’ Or ‘Wow, I have been involved and implicated in these events without really understanding what the ramifications are.’ And yes, because the play addresses the murders of many of these black men there is also a dialogue around what’s happening in the culture so I guess, yes, the answer is yes! There is that. The play is only a small reflection of all of the multiple ways in which race continues — race/racism — continues to determine what’s happening in our justice system, what’s happening in our streets, what’s happening in housing policies, what’s happening in education, what’s happening around office tables — in every aspect of our being.

Leith Burke performs in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.

Leith Burke, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

LG: And finally, how have your own conversations changed around the subject of race and racial silencing?

CR: I think the best thing about this — this whole double consciousness, this sense that there was one conversation for African Americans, among them, and there was another conversation about African Americans among whites — I think that distinction has gone out the window.

There’s nothing that I would say to you that I wouldn’t say to whomever. That for me is the real difference. That there is no longer a sense that with you I can speak the truth and with that person I need to just get out of the way. And that’s happening more and more. I pick up the paper and I’m reading [New York Times columnist] Charles Blow and he is saying many things that I have never heard written in mainstream media.

LG: It’s true. And it happens too in real time on his Twitter feed and it is a refreshing candidness that is inherent to the immediacy of social media. You can eavesdrop on conversations you would have never before been privy to. And too, that whole old conversation about “airing dirty laundry” and keeping secrets, that’s changing. It has to.

CR: Right. That’s great in terms of African American culture. I feel for the first time we are all actually on the same page. Whether or not we agree or disagree at least we understand that there is a created white culture, and that created white culture has a history of white supremacism influencing its many decisions. That seemed like a no-brainer. But I think for a lot of white people that was not something to be said — or understood — because whiteness was supposed to be normality — and normality seemed to have no color. So everybody was supposed to strive to reach that. Then suddenly, finally, we have this recognition that we shouldn’t want to strive for something that has at its core the annihilation of black and brown bodies.

Lynell George, is an L.A. based, journalist and essayist. This post originally appeared on KCET Artbound. Production photos by Ed Krieger. 

Citizen: An American Lyric runs to October 11th. More Info/Get Tickets

Students share experience seeing ‘Citizen’: “I learned a valuable life lesson from this production”

FIDM studentsI’m not sure that another play will be able to give me the feeling that this one did. 

College students from Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising attended a recent performance of Citizen: An American Lyric . The students are in their first or second year of college and are mostly 18 to 22 years old. Their teacher is Alan Goodson, who is also an actor who has appeared on our Fountain stage.

Alan Goodson

Alan Goodson

“The class is called Seminar in the Arts,” explains Goodson.  “The students are generally visual artists of one kind or another, but have had little or no exposure to other artistic media – so I try to broaden their artistic horizons by taking them to theatre. ”

Providing students with access to live theatre is at the core of the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program, Theatre as a Learning Tool. 

After seeing Citizen at the Fountain, the students engaged in a Q&A discussion with the actors. “It was really a moving and eye-opening experience for them, ” says Goodson. ” Proof of the power of theatre in general, and of this material in particular. The cast discussion with the students deepened the experience a great deal.”

CITIZEN cast talk with students

CITIZEN cast talk with students in post-show Q&A 

Back in the classroom, students were instructed to write papers on their play-going experience seeing Citizen. A few samples: 

“This play gave me such an insight on life and it had many powerful moments that got me really emotional. One of the most emotional moments of the play was when they gave recognition to the people who were lost due to racism. In that moment I felt as though everyone in the audience was one and we all felt the same way in that exact moment. That is one thing that we all as a human race have in common. We can all feel pain and happiness.  I myself am still trying to find who I am as a person and all I know is that I want to be a positive person that loves life indefinitely. It hurts to know that there are still so many harsh and cruel things going on in the world and that there may never be an end to it….I’m not sure that another play will be able to give me the feeling that this one did. I will continue to try and live a positive and judgment-free life because of this experience.”

“Citizen: An American Lyric involved a variety of different situations in which POC, people of color, experience different versions of racism, either blatantly or discreetly, on a daily basis. Each unique example of racism conveyed throughout the play is yet another reminder of the fact that no matter how far America has progressed, its roots have been set; in other words, no matter how much America has grown as a nation, no matter how far we have come as a whole, the previous views and beliefs that once bounded all people of color in chains remains buried underneath the blood-soaked ground we walk upon every day.” 

“All of the visual details of the performance help to create the environment that influenced Citizen. The costuming for this performance is different from most plays; the outfits are styled in a way that you don’t notice that the actors are wearing costumes. That adds to the notion that racism in the real world doesn’t occur with costumes and fancy lighting, but it comes from regular people in their everyday habitats in their everyday clothing. The production itself is a visual representation of the casual occurrences of racism.”

“There have been countless moments in my life when I was deeply offended by a person of a different race because of my skin color. Within those moments of hurt, pain, and confusion, it is sometimes difficult to take the high road and not react negatively. However, as a Black woman, I know that I must be beyond reproach. That is what keeps me level-headed when dealing with such ignorance….Overall, I was moved by Citizen: An American Lyric. The play was well-written and easy to follow. The message was clear, concise and properly backed up with examples and scenarios. Anyone who viewed this play definitely left with a heightened sense of what Black people go through on a daily basis in this country. Hopefully, the message in Citizen will transcend generations and contribute to the extinction of racism in the near future. This is capable of such power and influence.”

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

“This play is worth seeing and worth putting on because it opens eyes. It opens the eyes to the blind who cannot see what America has become. Every day there is something new, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, the South Carolina Methodist Church, the Texas pool party, and Sandra Bland. It continues to go on every day. There is something new on the news, and we all acknowledge it, but what are we going to do about it? This play is a perfect step to helping our country go towards the right direction. It captures emotions and minds of the young and the old. It’s a universal, theatrical experience that is enticing, sensitive but powerful, and easily understandable. An overall learning experience that must be seen.”

“I learned a valuable life lesson from this production. During our discussion afterwards I could never un-hear those words of Tina Lifford and Simone Missick, who played Citizen One and Two, ‘Get your foot off your throat,’ a memorable saying that I will carry into my day-to-day life for evermore. Make it clear that if you don’t speak up there will be no ‘justice’ within yourself. To acquire change is not always an easy battle.”

“The final outcome of the play is an emotional reflection of our society, and it is well executed through the actors’ performance and incorporated mixed media. The proximity of actors to audience truly heightens the struggle, and the tears are real from the actors as well as the audience. After leaving the theatre, you can’t help but meditate on the current social issues, and how you have helped or hindered them….As citizens we have a duty to defend and protect ourselves, more importantly, our identity in society. Social norms, customs and morals are created by society itself, change starts with one person, and Rankine is the voice that brings attention to the current underlying problem. It is now our job to stand up and speak up against racial ignorance, against unjust authorities’ actions, and our neighbors’ prejudices. Staying silent against wrongdoing causes deeper pain, bringing awareness is only the beginning of the healing process.”

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre in Memory 2

“I feel Citizen: An American Lyric brought to light a very heavy topic and made it easier to listen to and talk about. I feel that turning the book into a theater production was a very good idea because it gave that much more of a voice to a topic that needs to be more widely discussed. I feel that the intimacy of the theatre and the minimalism of the production are both factors that really contributed to the success of the play. Watching the production myself, I left feeling very touched and somewhat awakened to a topic I am not normally exposed to.”

“Though people think that America is the ‘melting pot’ of the world, there are still many conflicts that are created from racial issues. Rankine’s book and play bring to light the daily struggles that black Americans face. Sometimes, when we aren’t personally effected by a problem, we forget that the problem is happening still. Many people feel safe being in their own bubble, but this play pops that bubble and leaves audiences with the truth.”

“It was a small room with only three rows of seats extremely close to the stage. This allowed the audience to feel not only close to the actors/actresses, but to feel the rawness of the play. One was able to feel their voices echo and resonate throughout one’s body. The intimacy of the room allowed one to feel a connection to every word and every scene that played out. This theatre was perfect because such an intimacy had an impact on each member in the audience to truly understand the sorrow and grief of the sufferings racial injustice has caused….Many have no idea when they have said something wrong, and from what one has learned in this play, it is up to each one of us to use our voice and call out each person on it….It was such a moving performance because one was taken with awe at each example that was brought to reality. Many of the examples provided, one has heard or been in the middle of, but seeing it happen as an actual example brings shock to an audience. This is when one realizes that it isn’t just a one-time occurrence; these racial actions and comments happen daily. It depends on every one of us to put a stop to it.”

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

“There was one vignette in particular that struck me. It was when Bernard K. Addison was playing an innocent man bombarded and put in jail as a victim of being another black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with pigs hiding behind their badges eager to fill their quota. Addison stands there in the middle of the chaos, with a red light enclosing him. He stands there and we witness some of the heaviest tears I have ever seen on stage. These tears cut through the soul of each audience member and leave one’s heart aching. I couldn’t help but to feel cold, harsh guilt ooze inside of me due to what some of the people with my skin color have been doing to those of another…. Citizen: An American Lyric takes us on a journey that we may not be sure we really want to go on. It addresses the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Every time the news comes on it’s the same story with new faces. This play has the audience walking away with a renewed knowledge of the responsibility we all carry. Really, the answer is very simple: be kind to one another. Yet, as they state in the play, ‘Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.’ It hurts that there is such a long lineage of hate, and what’s worse is that there’s no immediate answer. But if we each do our part, perhaps, slowly we can make the world a better place to live in. This is everyone’s home and no one should feel they are not a part of it because of the color of their skin, sexual orientation, gender, or anything else innate, for that matter.”

Citizen: An American Lyric has been extended to Oct 11th. More Info/Get Tickets

‘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