‘Citizen’ Powerfully Engages the Everyday of Racism in America
The book, by MacArthur Genius Claudia Rankine, is a masterwork. So is Sound Theatre and the Hansberry Project’s staging, in which all elements coalesce flawlessly into a challenging and invigorating production. It runs through July 28.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is like a multi-disciplinary academic tome on how racism operates, merged with modern headlines and anecdotes, and placed in the hands of an artist. Though a quick two-hour read, that award-winning book covers all: the modernity and history, the sociology and psychology, the pop culture and news grabs, the individual and empirical. But it does so in the language of the poet. The language grips, pulling the reader in, to a place both emotional and rational. And with visual art woven throughout, the book is also a gallery, inviting curiosity and exploration into the curated imagery.
And while instructive for non-Black people, Citizen plays a specific role for Black people that’s just as crucial. To them it confirms, Your anger is the most rational thing in the world. And don’t let them call you insane for it.
Into that backdrop comes the stage adaptation, and its current production by Sound Theatre Company with the Hansberry Project. Going in was a curiosity, for it is at once hard to imagine any adaptation could mimic the book, while clear the book invites a lived manifestation.
So how does it hold up?
The stage adaptation by playwright Stephen Sachs — which premiered in 2015 to critical acclaim at The Fountain Theatre, of which Sachs is Co-Artistic Director — sticks very close to Rankine’s original text, but with significant reordering. The arrangement for stage flows nicely, dramatically; just as the book format flows impactfully as a personal meditation in the reader’s hands.
But the potency of the Sound-Hansberry production is as much on stage as in the text itself, and the actualization of that comes less from the script (excerpt here) than from the minds of the director, cast and design team that brought this one into life. It’s directed masterfully, by Sound’s Associate Artistic Director Jay O’Leary. It’s designed beautifully, with projections (Tristan Roberson), costumes (Ricky German), set (Lex Marcos), sound (Maggie L. Rogers), and lights (Richard Schaefer) setting an urgent, illustrative and memorable stage, but never taking over, as to dilute or disrupt the message. And its told efficiently, with strong pacing and continual movement animating the 75-minute performance.
And then there’s the cast: four Black performers (Naa Akua, Nicholas Japaul Bernard, Allyson Lee Brown, and Shermona Mitchell, who will own their central positions on stage) and two White performers (Rebecca Cort and Richard Sean Glen, who will play loathsome roles during much of the action).
The cast is a dream. Akua and Mitchell each bring a calm but forceful presence exuding wisdom; Akua, a poet, with a seasoned rhythmic flow, and Mitchell, with an edge of eagerness to challenge injustice. Bernard gets a chance to show off his sly wit, alongside the deadly seriousness most of the subject demands. And Brown, who plays Serena Williams among other roles, exudes all the confidence of royalty at the top of her game. Cort and Glen gamely exude all the privilege and entitlement their roles require, and it’s never taken over the top.
And that’s the message of Citizen, conveyed by these six actors on this Seattle stage, with stories shared with vulnerability through four actors well-known to Seattle audiences, heckled by two characters who are shits, with entitlement we can recognize. It’s not strictly the dramatic, news-making violent acts (though those are raised too), but the minor slights day in and day out, which collectively and systemically convey a message, I have the power and you don’t. Or I belong here and you don’t. Or I’m an American and if you don’t like it, get out.
That latter point may be the strongest element that Sound’s production of this work, whose full title (in both versions) is Citizen: An American Lyric, adds to the printed form. It grabs and magnifies the theme of America vs. America, the still-going civil war of race, in both spoken word and visual form. (The projection, which transforms #saytheirnames into a depiction of the American flag toward the end of the performance, is brilliant.) This country is destroying itself, as it has been. True patriotism would do something about it, rather than fanning the flames of racist violence — or the low flame, as Rankine’s original describes it, slow to appear but which eventually combust all the same.
Citizen on stage operates alongside of, not in lieu of or in competition with, the printed word. The production gives voices and faces and emotional immediacy to the printed word; where the printed word, in contrast, gives a quietness and space, an opportunity to process. They’re each powerful separately. They work strongest together.
Citizen should be required viewing — and reading — by every nonprofit arts administrator and board member in town. Along with every other well-intentioned non-Black person who’d care if their Black friends one day said #metoo.
They probably already have.
Citizen: An American Lyric runs through 7/28 at the Center House Theater on the lower level of Seattle Center’s Armory. Tickets are $5-$75 (sliding scale for all), available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible; ASL-interpreted performance on 7/26. Financial accessibility: all tickets for all nights are on a name-your-price financially inclusive model, with ticketing options beginning at $5.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.