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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.

PHOTOS: ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ prepares to join the party at Kirk Douglas Theatre

castWeek one of rehearsal started Tuesday for our upcoming remount of Citizen: An American Lyric, the centerpiece of Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Originally created and produced in 2015 at the Fountain Theatre, last week was a happy reunion for original cast members, designers , production crew and director Shirley Jo Finney.  

Citizen: An American Lyric is a searing and poetic riff on race in America written by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs. The cast features Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Monnae Michael, Simone Missick, and Lisa Pescia. 

The company met in the rehearsal room at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and immediately got to work. Day one began with a table reading of the script. As the week progressed, the actors were soon up on their feet pacing through the blocking. Citizen opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre for a limited run April 30 – May 7.   

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Fountain Theatre launches 2017-18 season for social action with world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, ‘Building the Wall’

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The Fountain Theatre will open its 2017-18 season of new plays with an urgent warning against the proposed policies of the Trump administration, followed by statements on social justice, inclusion, acceptance of “the other,” prejudice, the role of government and the need for human connection.

“The Fountain has always been committed to speaking out for social justice and inclusion,” asserts Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. “These are disturbing and tumultuous times — for our local intimate theater community in Los Angeles and our nation. The Fountain is a place for theater to serve as a vehicle for public discourse: to express outrage, compassion and hope.”

The 2017-18 season will include four world premieres — Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan; Runaway Home by Jeremy J. Kamps; Freddie by Deborah Lawlor; and Arrival and Departure by Stephen Sachs — as well as the Los Angeles premiere of The Chosen by Aaron Posner. The Fountain’s 2015 production of Citizen: An American Lyric, written by Claudia Rankine and adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, will be presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Group’s inaugural Block Party. And, in addition to the Fountain’s ongoing, monthly ‘Forever Flamenco’ series, the Fountain will host Flamenco Fiesta, a two-day, outdoor flamenco concert celebration.

Over the past 27 years, The Fountain Theatre has established itself as one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. Fountain projects have been translated into numerous languages, produced across the U.S. and worldwide, and made into a TV movie.

The Fountain Theatre’s 2017-18 season is as follows:

March 18 – May 21 (previews March 15-17)
building-wallWorld premiere of Building the WallThe newest play by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle, All the Way), directed by award-winning Michael Michetti. It’s the very near future, and the Trump administration has carried out his campaign promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. Now, a writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison as he awaits sentencing for carrying out the federal policy that has escalated into the unimaginable. This riveting, harrowing and illuminating drama delivers a powerful warning and puts a human face on the inhuman, revealing how when personal accountability is denied, what seems inconceivable becomes inevitable.

April 30 – May 7 (previews April 28-29)

citizenCitizen: An American LyricCenter Theatre Group will remount the Fountain’s award-winning 2015 production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of CTG’s inaugural Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre. Written by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, Citizen fuses poetry, prose, movement, music and video images in a provocative meditation on everyday acts of racism in America. Actors returning from the original production include Simone Missick, who co-stars as Misty Knight on Netflix’s Luke Cage.

Summer 2017
runaway-homeWorld premiere of Runaway Home Three years after Hurricane Katrina, the unhealed wounds of New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward continue to fester. In this powerful, funny and deeply moving mother-daughter story by Jeremy J. Kamps, 14-year-old runaway Kali embarks on a journey to pick through the wreckage of what used to be her life. Rhyming, stealing and scamming her way through the still-destroyed neighborhood, engaging the vivid, lively denizens who remain, she grapples with the real cost of what she has lost as she is forced to confront the even higher cost of moving forward and the possibility of redemption.

Fall 2017
the-chosenLos Angeles premiere of The Chosen The Fountain Theatre celebrates the 50th anniversary of Chaim Potok’s beloved novel with the L.A. premiere of the award-winning stage adaptation by Aaron Posner. A silent father, an ancient tradition and an unexpectedly important game of baseball forge bonds of lifelong friendship between two Jewish boys from “five blocks and a world apart” in this funny, poignant, timely and timeless story about recognition and acceptance of “the other.” Directed by Simon Levy.

Fall 2017
freddieWorld premiere of Freddie This hybrid dance/theater work by Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor will be presented at Los Angeles City College, inaugurating a new partnership with the LACC Theatre Academy. Set in Greenwich Village in 1964 and based on a true story, Freddie fuses theater, music, dance and video to capture the explosive spirit of a passionate artist and a turbulent era. A naïve young woman falls under the spell of Freddie Herko, a brilliant ballet dancer of extraordinary charisma and talent and a beloved luminary of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Frances Loy directs.

Spring 2018
arrival-departWorld premiere of Arrival and Departure Troy Kotsur and his real-life wife Deanne Bray star in a modern-day, re-imagined deaf/hearing stage adaptation by Stephen Sachs (Bakersfield Mist, Cyrano) of the classic 1945 British romantic film, Brief Encounter. A deaf man and a deaf woman, married to different people, meet accidentally in a train station. A friendship develops over time, escalating into a passionate love affair that both struggle to permit themselves to consummate. An unforgettable love story about the challenges of communication, social isolation, diversity and self-empowerment.

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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.

‘Luke Cage’ co-star Simone Missick asks you to support the Fountain Theatre

misty-knight-simone-missickFountain actress Simone Missick currently co-stars on the Netflix hit series Luke Cage. She has appeared on our Fountain stage in our acclaimed Los Angeles Premiere of Tarell McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, and our award-winning stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.

The Fountain Theatre is Simone’s theatre home in Los Angeles. Like any home, the Fountain needs care and upkeep and investment to maintain its value and longevity.

“I have been allowed to grow and change and I’ve been nurtured in ways I could only have dreamed of by my Fountain Family,” says Simone.

The Fountain Theatre is a dream worth supporting. A dream worth fighting for. Don’t you agree? Give now

How Can I Help Keep the Fountain Dream Alive? 

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. 

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre feel most colored

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.”

The Race

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.”