CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC Theatre Review of a World Premiere
[dc]T[/dc]he cutting edge new play Citizen: An American Lyric, with its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, sadly, already needs updating. Toward the end of this dramatized spoken word collage based on Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book of poetry of the same name are video images of Blacks murdered by police and vigilantes - such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown - projected on the Fountain Theatre’s wall. Tragically, pictures of the latest victims apparently lynched by the pigs for the most minor of traffic infractions - Sandra Bland and Samuel Dubose - are not, to the best of this reviewer’s recollections, depicted in this heartbreaking photo gallery of African Americans slayed by racists in the past few years.
This is not the fault of Rankine or of playwright Stephen Sachs, who adroitly adapted Rankine’s prophetic poems for the stage and which is having its world premiere at the 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 even keep up with their atrocities as the pigs run amok among us. Even at the height of the Civil Rights movement “only” four Black girls were killed at a Birmingham church in 1963 - but in our more “enlightened” times, nine (count them, nine!!!) Blacks are gunned down by a white supremacist at a Charleston church (and what a paragon of Aryan manhood that detestable little lunatic shooter is!).
These vicious vermin are gunning down and murdering the descendants of America’s slaves for committing the “heinous” crimes of: Strolling-with-Skittles-while-Black; eye-contact-with-Porky-while-Black; selling-loose-cigarettes-while-Black; driving-without-front-license-plate-while-Black; changing-lanes-without-signaling-while-Black; praying-while-Black; et al. Certainly, by all means, off with their heads for these capital offenses! All “crimes” worthy of the death sentence - each one meted out minus judge and jury by self-appointed executioners who are then usually found not guilty by the “injustice” system. (Although these swine and “whitey’s” courts are often held accountable by the indignant people, as the 50th anniversary of the Watts urban uprising - if not the more recent rebellions at Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. - should remind us. This slaughter of the innocents has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a National March to Stop Police Terror to take place in New York on Oct. 24.)
Meanwhile, back at the review:
Despite the sorrowful fact that the pace of the quick-on-the-draw trigger-happy pigs’ crimes against humanity is faster than the literary/ theatrical creative process and the gun outguns the pen, Rankine and her “amanuensis” (of sorts) Sachs have created a significant, substantial work that is must-see (and must-hear!) viewing (and listening!) for today’s theatergoers. As the emerging playwright Audra Bryant put it (in a private conversation repeated here with the Detroit-born Bryant’s permission) at the reception following Citizen’s opening, this play is important because it is stimulating and 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 Caucasians. Throughout the 75-ish minute or so one-acter sans intermission are vignettes depicting interactions between Blacks and whites revealing 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 HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) can’t curb her enthusiasm when she “compliments” Citizen #1 (the radiant Simone Messick, a Black actress who has acted in Showtime’s Ray Donovan and is probably the play’s standout performer), gushing: “Your [facial] features are more like a white person’s.” (Note to casting directors, et al: Pay attention to the gifted Missick, who has real star power.)
In another sketch, Citizen #3 (Leith Burke, an African American actor who appeared on Broadway with Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremburg 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!).
What this white reviewer found to be particularly eye-opening were the scenes wherein Citizen #2 (the talented Tina Lifford, whose credits range from a Clint Eastwood movie to the CIA director on ABC-TV’s Scandal to playing Winnie Mandela opposite Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine in Showtime’s 1997 Mandela and DeKlerk) portrays tennis champ Serena Williams. Now, I hate when tennis players such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors throw temper tantrums on court and on live TV. I find their egocentric, overly aggressive ranting and raving to be offensive and poor sportsmanship. I also admit to disdaining jocks who win fame and fortune way beyond proportion to whatever contribution they make to society by playing with a ball. (Garbage collectors are usually far more valuable, but that’s another story.)
Among other incidents, Tifford reenacts 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 fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God.” (This altercation, which is dramatized in Citizen, 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 is depicted by Tifford, whose muscles are tensed up coiled with rage during these scenes.
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But according to Citizen, 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 that white judges, umpires, sportscasters (who delight in mocking her body type as “unfeminine”), etc., are making racist calls against the straight-out-of- Compton Serena, who - along with her sister Venus - have 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-ball players as over-privileged, spoiled jocks, I hadn’t taken Citizen’s racism allegations vis-à-vis Serena into consideration. But the play opened this Caucasian’s eyes and mind and reminded him of an episode from his childhood: During the 1960s my father taught at Brooklyn’s Boys High and this Bedford Stuyvesant high school’s football team was widely regarded as the city’s best. When Boys High lost the New York City championship game, some alleged this was because the white powers-that-be didn’t want the title to go to a Black and proud Bed Stuy team.
Based on the poems of the Jamaica-born Rankine, who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Open Book Award, NAACP Image Award and other accolades, Sachs’ (he’s also an award-winner and this production’s co-artistic director) dramatization is poetic. At first, the staccato bursts of Citizen’s stage work, swinging 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 a chronological chronicle. In that way, this world premiere adapting poems for a play is nonlinear and more Brechtian, with a style and form more mosaic than prosaic. To tell you the truth, I quite enjoy works for the stage and screen that transcend linear structure and find alternative, creative ways to communicate.
And with Shirley Jo Finney’s direction, Citizen: An American Lyric does so admirably. Yee Eun Nam’s video design enhances Citizen’s expressiveness and poetic sensibility(as did her projection design for LATC’s recent Generation Sex). For instance, Nam’s visual FX assists in revealing the perils of driving-while-Black in this land of white supremacy. As Citizen #4, Bernard Addison - perhaps the most recognizable face onstage, with an endless list of credits stretching from stage to big and little screen, including TV’s Ugly Betty - excels in these scenes about innocent Black drivers being rousted by the pigs wherein, to paraphrase that old television commercial: “Let HURTS put you in the driver’s seat” - and at the wrong end of a billy club.
Nam’s imagery also includes a graphic of Emmett Till, the metaphorical “grandfather”, one could say, of today’s high profile murdered Blacks. In 1955, when he was 14 years old, Till was brutally lynched down South for purportedly whistling at a white woman. During his funeral back at Chicago his mother insisted on leaving her son’s casket open. The mutilated, partially decomposed corpse was viewed in person by up to 50,000 mourners and by many more in photos published in Jet, spurring the Civil Rights movement.
In 2010, Addison co-starred in another strong, socially conscious drama at the 78-seat Fountain Theatre, The Ballad of Emmett Till, penned by playwright Ifa Beyeza, directed by none other than Finney. This is what I wrote in my review then about his performance: “The South Carolina-born Bernard Addison captures what W.E.B. DuBois called “the soul of Black folks,” crystallizing onstage the sheer terror of the pre-Civil Rights generation of Blacks subjected to night riders and lynchings in the Old South. When the rednecks come to his spread to apprehend his nephew in the dead of the night, Addison’s character, Uncle Moses, is rather memorably dumbstruck. It is the quintessence of the powerless, terror stricken and paralyzed by persecution.”
Citizen packs such a powerful punch that, as Audra Bryant pointed out, it not only stirs conversation about the (pick your color) elephant in the room, which Americans have often resisted discussing in private and/or as part of our tortured national discourse. Indeed, Bryant added, Citizen inspired her to go home and work on her own racially relevant play. (BTW, here’s the $64,000 Brechtian question: Is there a way - besides talkbacks and Q&As after a live show - to involve the audience in talking about a play’s topic as part of and during the live performance???)
The innocent Black victims of police/vigilante terror may often not get justice, but here, in the theatre - if not “court” - of public opinion, these citizens are being vindicated 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 CA 90029, on Saturdays and Mondays (dark Sept. 7) at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (except Aug. 16). For more info: (323)663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/) and his Progressive Magazine interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.”