Claudia Rankine’s award-winning poetry collection, Citizen, an American Lyric, has been adapted for the theatre by Stephen Sachs and directed by the accomplished Shirley Jo Finney at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. The producers describe it as “A provocative meditation on race, fusing prose, poetry, movement, music, and the visual image. A lyric poem, snapshots, vignettes, on the acts of everyday racism.” This world premiere is on stage into September 2015. With the current discussion on race and apartheid in Israel/Palestine, Citizen couldn’t be more timely. Info on the play here.
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.
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?
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 L.A. activist on behalf of Palestinian rights and an organizer with LA Jews for Peace.