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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Except these are the kinds of remarks that people say today, sometimes by prominent people in public places. These comments are the gasoline that powers the engine of Citizen: an American Lyric, the dramatic adaptation of Claudia Rankine's poetic examination of race in everyday American life. The stage version, adapted by playwright and Fountain Theatre Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, concerns itself with questions of conflict and context rather than with striking a match and seeing what else bursts into flame.
For 75 cerebral and occasionally provocative minutes, director Shirley Jo Finney's six-person cast work their way through — and in some cases around — some sociologically thorny terrain. Citizen is seeking neither answers nor an outlet for its rage because the Fountain stage feels strangely rage-free. No, what we have here is a voice that is hell-bent on taking part in the larger conversation. Heaven knows, it is a conversation that America still desperately needs to have.
In Rankine's piece, these themes are examined through an oleo of brief encounters, lengthier ruminations, statistics and visual images. In taking Rankine's work to another medium, Sachs keeps the second-person format so that performers are commenting on and reacting to situations with "and you think. . ." or "and you feel." The intent is clear: every member of the audience becomes a citizen capable of making such a remark or of thinking about the remark and working toward a more enlightened society. That universal "you" occasionally has the not-always-desirable effect of making it seem like the text is being interpreted for you even as it is being delivered.
What then are you (or we) to make of a woman cheerily calling her office mate a"nappy headed ho" or of one person holding a veritable stranger responsible for the perceived effects of affirmative action? These scenelets tend to flash by quickly, pushing us to the next place. It helps that Finney's cast are not doing caricatures or stylized performances. In Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burk, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia, we have a smooth cross section of young and middle age, white and black. They look like their audience. They could be the audience.
While Sachs and Rankine are clearly inspired by language, its use and misuse, some of the more vivid images of the Citizen pastiche are wordless: Serena Williams crip walking after defeating Maria Sharapovna in the 2012 Olympics and Zinedine Zidane headbutting Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, both of which are shown and replayed via Yee Eun Nam's elegant projections.
Sachs gives the Williams rumination some room to breathe and the results are fascinating. With Lifford depicting the tennis star, the scene builds up and contextualizes Serena Williams's position in the largely white domain of professional tennis. In musing on Zora Neale Hurston's quote "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background," the playwright depicts a series of encounters with judges and fans leading up to that dance. Lifford registers every slight.
Short though it is, Citizen affords ample opportunity for gasps, tears, snickers and discussion. The Fountain has a lengthy history of producing intelligent, socially conscious work. The West Coast premiere of South African playwright Athol Fugard's new work arrives in October. For now, experience Citizen and let the ensuing discussion continue.