Tag Archives: race in America

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

group faces

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

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.

simone-claudia-lisa-talkback

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.

citizen-lp-photo-1

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. 

The American lyric of ‘Citizen’ matters

Leith Burke in 'Citizen' at the Fountain Theatre.

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

by Rick Chertoff

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

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

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

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

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

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

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

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

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

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

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

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

The American lyric of Citizen matters.

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

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

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

 Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

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

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

Another memorable afternoon at the Fountain Theatre.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

8

‘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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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  

       

 

 

 

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

Award-Winning Poet Claudia Rankine explores everyday racism in America with ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine

Fountain Theatre stage adaptation Opens Aug 1st

by Ernest Hardy

During the Q&A following her recent reading at MOCA, someone asked poet Claudia Rankine about the politically and morally complex act of sharing images and video clips of dead black bodies, bodies murdered by policemen, across social media. It’s unquestionably a form of pornography, but can there be something of substantive and socially transformative value in the posting of these modern day lynchings? Ms. Rankine answered, in part, with a multi-tiered question:

“What does it mean to have black male bodies out holding the space of evidence, and also allowing whiteness its sentimentality around black pain, and also having the body be an orphan body as if there’s no family behind it?”

After breaking down in detail the obscenity of Michael Brown’s slain body laying in the street uncovered for four hours (“No way that would have happened to a white body,”) with even his mother not allowed to touch him – and then his mother being denied her son’s body for two weeks – Ms. Rankine reminded the packed room that 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s mother had to wait six months to get his body from the city after he was killed by cops. “They [the authorities] need [all that] time to explain away what we are seeing,” she said bluntly.

“Yes, this is pornography,” she added during the post-reading book signing, “but we need these images out in the world to make real and undeniable for others what we know – what we have always known – and what has always happened.”

book coverHer 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press), which has won the National Book Critics Award for Poetry, the PEN Open Book Award, an NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work/Poetry, and is up for the Forward Prize for poetry in the UK, is an exquisitely written brutal read. A collection of lyrical prose poems, cultural criticism, brief screenplays, and images from across the spectrum of the visual arts, the effect of the book (experimental/accessible/intoxicating) is at times akin to having a razor slide across your skin.

She read at MOCA Grand as part of their William Pope L exhibit Trinket, and kicked the evening off reading from his monograph The Friendliest Black Artist in America (MIT Press), whose text she says turned her into a Pope fan-girl, and is one of the core influences behindCitizen. She said Pope’s work is one of the things that egged her on to explore, “The lack that becomes the hole that cannot be filled.”

From there, she read poems about police brutality, Hurricane Katrina, the failure of white people to call out racism in their daily lives (with nods to those who actually do,) the soft-but-not-really racism in academia, the racism Venus and Serena Williams have faced throughout their careers – and still face, and the quotidian erasure of and hostility toward blackness. In between pieces, she explained her process; for example she and her husband recorded CNN coverage of Hurricane Katrina in the days leading to its touchdown on land, and its aftermath. Going through the hours of footage after the fact, she came across post-hurricane statements by Barbara Bush (“And so many of the people in the area here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this is working very well for them,”) and Wolf Blitzer (“… so many of these people, almost all of them that we see, are so poor and they are so black,”) that she wove into her piece, and have lost none of their power to stun.

Claudia-Rankine-KCRWOne of the biggest overall surprises was just how funny she was – dry, droll, sardonic. But it also makes sense. That humor is a very necessary protective device when swimming in and documenting the grim realities of anti-blackness. And it was a relief to be in the presence of a poet with a sense of musicality and melody in their delivery that was utterly absent the god-awful slam-poet / coffeehouse / spoken word flow whose embedded hackneyed rhythms and overblown self-importance can sabotage even the best written poems.

In the Q&A that followed, a question about identity politics of the ‘90s and the psychoanalytic aspects of her work led her to observe that the flaw of identity politics was/is the notion that, “If you could see me and properly name me, then you’d change the way you think about me.” To which she added, “That’s bullshit.”

But one of the highlights of the evening came when she introduced her final poem. “It’s always interesting, the choosing of the last piece,” she said with a chuckle. “Because I could leave you in a place of great happiness…” She paused. “But noooooo, we would have to start all over.” She laughed wickedly.

This post originally appeared on craveonline.

The Fountain Theatre will present the world premiere stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric in August. More Info/Get Tickets