Racism as a pigment of your imagination: “Citizen: An American Lyric”

LOS ANGELES – The cutting-edge new play Citizen: An American Lyric, with its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, is, sadly, already in need of updating. Toward the end of this dramatized spoken word collage, based on Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book of poetry of the same name, video images of blacks murdered by police and vigilantes – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Emmet Till, and others – fill the wall behind the stage. Tragically, pictures of the latest victims apparently killed by cops for the most minor of traffic infractions – Sandra Bland and Samuel Dubose – do not, to the best of recollection, appear in this heartbreaking photo gallery.

This is not the fault of Rankine or of playwright Stephen Sachs, whose adroit adaptation of Rankine’s prophetic poems for the stage is having its world premiere production at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre. Rather, it is a testament to the terrible temper of the times that the outrageous misfortune of racism as perpetrated and perpetuated by domestic terrorists against unarmed “Africans in America” (as Stokely Carmichael called his people) is continuing at such head-spinning speed that poets and dramatists can’t keep up.

Despite the sorrowful fact that the pace of our racist system’s crimes against the humanity of black folk is faster than the literary/theatrical creative process, Rankine and her “amanuensis” (of sorts) Sachs have created a significant, substantial work that is must-see viewing (and listening) for today’s theatergoers. As the emerging playwright Audra Bryant put it at the reception following Citizen‘s opening, this play is important because it is sparking discussions about race and racism in America. (Bryant’s play The Cage premiered in 2011 at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Theatre.)

Citizen‘s superb cast consists of three females and three males, four of whom are African American, while two appear to be white. The 75-minute or so one-acter is constructed of vignettes that depict interactions between blacks and whites and reveal the commonplace racism that is all too often just below the surface of ordinary people. For instance, at a school setting Citizen #5 (Lisa Pescia, who seems to be white and has appeared on TV shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm) can’t curb her enthusiasm when she “compliments” Citizen #1 (the radiant Simone Messick, a black actress who is probably the play’s standout performer), gushing, “Your [facial] features are more like a white person’s.”

In another sketch, Citizen #3 (Leith Burke, an African American actor who appeared on Broadway with Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg and on TV’s The West Wing) amusingly and insightfully enacts “How to become a successful black artist.” Of course, this commercialized persona requires the requisite dose of rage in order to play the stereotypical “angry black man” (as if 400 years of oppression wouldn’t enrage anyone!).

Particularly eye-opening for this reviewer were the scenes in which Citizen #2 (the talented Tina Lifford, Scandal, Winnie Mandela in Mandela and DeKlerk) portrays tennis champ Serena Williams.

Among other incidents, Tifford re-enacts Serena’s contretemps with a line judge at the 2009 U.S. Open, which prompted the star athlete from Compton to exclaim: “I swear to God I’m going to take this ball and shove it down your f**king throat, you hear that? I swear to God.” (This altercation is #1 on the London newspaper The Guardian’s hit parade of “The Top 10 Tennis Tantrums…”) Similar examples of what appears to be Serena’s temperamental disposition are depicted by Tifford, whose muscles are tensed up and coiled with rage during these scenes.

According to Citizen, however, it’s not just the competitive nature of sports – especially professional, high stakes athletics – alone that has fueled Serena’s outbursts. The play raises the ugly specter of white judges, umpires, sportscasters (who delight in mocking her body type as “unfeminine”), etc., making racist calls against the straight-out-of-Compton Serena, who – along with her sister Venus – has dared invade the rarefied, lily white domain of hoity-toity tennis.

Since I can’t stand athletic belligerency, competitiveness and misbehavior in general and tend to regard most pro athletes as overprivileged, spoiled jocks, I hadn’t taken Citizen‘s racism allegations vis-à-vis Serena into consideration. But the play opened my eyes and mind.

Based on the poems of the Jamaica-born Rankine, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Open Book Award, NAACP Image Award and other accolades, Sachs (also this production’s co-artistic director) has crafted a poetic dramatization. At first, the staccato bursts of Citizen‘s script, which swing from scene to scene (not unlike an avant garde film), bewildered this critic more used to plays with conventional narrative structures. But as Citizen moved along, I became accustomed to this different style of storytelling that is more lyrical and thematic than it is chronological. In that way, this work is nonlinear and more Brechtian, with a style and form more mosaic than prosaic.

Shirley Jo Finney’s direction of Citizen does an admirable job of helping the play transcend linear structure and find alternative, creative ways to communicate its themes. Yee Eun Nam’s video design enhances Citizen‘s expressiveness and poetic sensibility. For instance, Nam’s visual FX assist in revealing the perils of driving-while-black in this land of white supremacy.

As Citizen #4, Bernard Addison – perhaps the most recognizable face on stage, with film and TV credits too numerous to list – excels in these scenes about innocent black drivers being rousted by the cops and going from being in the driver’s seat to being at the wrong end of a billy club.

Citizen packs such a powerful punch that, as Audra Bryant pointed out, it stirs conversation about the (pick your color) elephant in the room, which Americans have often resisted discussing in private or as part of our tortured national discourse around race. Indeed, Bryant added, Citizen inspired her to go home and work on her own racially relevant play.

The innocent black victims of police or vigilante terror may often not get justice, but here, in the theater – if not “court” – of public opinion, these citizens find vindication by a jury of their peers in a peerless play. From ballads to the lyrical, along with poet Rankine and playwright Sachs, Finney is still giving voice to the anguish and hopes of Africans in America. And like Orson Welles’ 1941 classic about capitalism, this Citizen raises Cain.

Citizen: An American Lyric is being performed through Sept. 14 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles 90029, on Saturdays and Mondays (dark Sept. 7) at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. For more info: (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com.

Photo: Ed Krieger


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.