Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Citizen: An American Lyric Takes On Topic Of Race

L-R: Lisa Pescia, Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, 
Monnae Michaell, Tony Maggio and Simone Missick

By Darlene Donloe

Two years ago when the Fountain Theatre mounted Claudia Rankine’s powerful tome, Citizen: An American Lyric, the country was in the midst of possibly imploding behind the growing number of racially motivated killings of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement.

Fast-forward and the show, which opened this week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, is being presented during a time when Los Angeles is observing the 25th anniversary of the city’s uprising that resulted after several policemen were acquitted of the Rodney King beating.

The commemoration has left an uneasy feeling in Los Angeles and even reopened some puss-filled wounds.  Depending on how you look at it, the timing of this remount is either brilliant or slightly dangerous. Either way, because of its authenticity and rawness, it will, hopefully, result in a much needed citywide healing.

Bernard K. Addison and Leith Burke

The show two years ago, helmed by Shirley Jo Finney, was a provocative and impressive piece of theater. However, the show mounted at the Kirk Douglas seems to have found its legs. It’s stronger and more powerful and emotional. Maybe it’s because Finney and all but one member of the cast has returned, so the familiarity with the material has been ingested and restocked.  There is something about this current incarnation that not only leaves a lump in your throat and a tear dangling from cheek, you can also feel your heartbeat jumping out of your chest.

Monnae Michaell and Tony Maggio

A stimulating reflection on the subject of race, Rankine's Citizen is the follow up to her groundbreaking book Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric.

Citizen has some haunting dialogue, the kind that stays with you long after the performance.

“Because White men can’t police their imagination, Black men are dying.”

“It is the White Man who creates the black man. But it is the black man who creates.”

“Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”

Bernard K. Addison and Simone Missick

While she reveals those are not her words, but rather can be attributed to other authors, including James Baldwin, the power behind those words don’t dissipate. In fact, they engulf the theater.   The words are stinging, but timely, given today’s headlines.

Rankine’s work, which has garnered several awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award, Los Angeles Times Book Award, the NAACP Image Award and the Pen Open Book Award, is challenging and eye-opening as she tackles the subject of race fusing poetry, prose, movement, music and video.

To be sure, this play points out how racism is still prevalent – whether it’s subtle or intentional. The piece recounts increased racial hostilities in unending encounters in daily life and in the media that are either slips of the tongues or full out deliberate assaults. Even Serena Williams is not spared from the indignities of racism.  The tennis champion has her own horror stories about those who didn’t think her black body belonged on their tennis court and/or about unfair umpires and sports reporters.

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Some of the show’s hard-hitting vignettes in the 75-minute presentation include:

A white father takes the middle seat on a plane so that his daughter won’t have to sit next to a black man.

A white woman is frightened and on the offensive when a black man rings her doorbell only to realize he has an appointment with her.

When her black friend shows up a bit late, the white friend exclaims, ‘why are you so late you nappy headed hoe’?

A white man says to his black buddy, ‘they are making me hire a person of color when there are so many good writers out there.’

And then there’s the story of the woman on a train. She would rather stand than sit next to a black man. People notice there is one seat left, but the woman doesn’t budge. Maybe she’s about to get off of the train. The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it. When another passenger leaves his seat and the standing woman sits, you glance over at the man. He is gazing out the window into what looks like darkness.

All of those are slight-of-hand moments of racism plaguing society.

(L-R) Tony Maggio, Lisa Pescia, Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, 
Monnae Michaell (front) and Simone Missick

At one point in the show, Rankine and Finney pay homage to the many black people who have senselessly lost their lives - by displaying some of their faces on a full screen upstage center, alongside the words In Memory Of…. Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott…..   The list goes on.

Finney knows how to tell a story. She not only comes up with inspired ways to convey the play’s themes, she keeps the audience engaged with her fluid direction. She commands the entire stage by directing the six actors (three men, three women) to not only move themselves effortlessly around the stage, but also to move the chairs – in order to signify a scene change. Far from an easy piece to helm with its ever moving parts, Finney’s decided and instinctual direction makes it look easy.

This strong cast doesn’t disappoint in delivering even stronger, racially-charged, damaging, emotionally-spent and incredibly sensitive material that weaves beautifully between essays, poems, prose and images. There is no weak link in bunch. Kudos to Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke, Lisa Pescia, Tony Maggio and Monnae Michaell, the new kid on the block, who replaced Tina Lifford.

Center Theatre Group is remounting “Citizen” as part of its very first Block Party program, which was created to showcase work done on other, more intimate stages around L.A. Other shows included in the program are Coeurage Theatre’s “Failure: A Love Story” and Echo Theater’s “Dry Land.”

(L-R) Bernard K. Addison, Tony Maggio, Lisa Pescia and Simone Missick (sitting)

Citizen: An American Lyric is written by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney. It stars Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Monnae Michaell, Tony Maggio, 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.

Citizen: An American Lyric, The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through May 7. Tickets for each production are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at, at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performance. Tickets range from $25 – $70 (ticket prices are subject to change).

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t know), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Citizen: An American Lyric gets an E (excellent).

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