Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Citizen: An American Lyric
Frank Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Thurgood and Arty's reviews of Safe at Home and The Awakening


Dana Thompson, Joe Nathan Thomas,
Hope Cervantes, and Theo Langason

Photo by Tony Nelson
The timing could not be any better for Frank Theatre to bring us Citizen: An American Lyric. The assemblage of prose, poetry and images by Claudia Rankine was a 2014 National Book Award finalist for poetry, and adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs in 2015 for Fountain Theatre in Los Angles. It depicts, with excruciating honesty, the experience of being black in America. In the few years since Rankine's work was published, it can be argued that things are no better and more likely are worse, as Black Lives Matter raises a cry for justice while those who fail to "get it" feel pushed further away from finding accord with communities of color.

While most geneticists concur that race is not truly a biological reality—there is more genetic variation among those of any race than between the races—and that race is primarily a sociological and political construct, there is no denying that it is real, and that in the United States of America, it is one of the primary schemes by which society is organized. The splintering of American society that accompanied our 2016 presidential election and continues to shape our national narrative would seem to exacerbate the intransigence of racism. The truth as revealed in Citizen: An American Lyric is that racism is not a Blue State versus Red State issue. Red States may be more flagrantly racist, unlikely to champion affirmative action, or to have empathy toward those who bear the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but racism is not simply the result of evil intent or even of indifference. It is a deeply ingrained learned response to others based on skin color, and carries with it a sense that the color of skin somehow equates to the value of person wearing that skin. This is true even among those who will argue to the end of the day that they know better.

Citizen portrays, in a series of vignettes, choral recitations, expressive movement, and analysis of newsreel footage, racism fueled by hatred and fear as well as racism fueled by habit and the inertia that tends to keep us in our comfort zone. At the end of the day, racism, no matter where it originates, wears away at the spirit. A cast of six "citizens"—four black, two white—enact a pageant that makes clear the reality of racism and the toll it takes. Using six chairs and no scenery, dressed in street clothes that could have been picked off the rack at Kohl's, they render Rankine's sharp, insightful text into powerful drama.

Video footage, brilliantly assembled by Bill Cottman is screened on the broad rear wall of the Intermedia Arts stage, at times providing backdrop for the actors' words and movement, and at other times being the subject of those words. Among these is an extensive look at tennis champion Serena Williams that suggests displays of anger to incessant racism early in her career was decried as the incorrect response, and polite accommodation to injustice the sign of her maturation. This segment draws with stark and profound clarity on a line taken from a work by artist Glenn Ligon: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background," the white culture (the late Arthur Ashe notwithstanding) of professional tennis being such a background.

In a powerful sketch, a white woman on a crowded subway car chooses to stand rather than sit in the vacant seat next to a black man. The black man gazes out the window, pretending not to notice. A black woman sizes up the situation, takes the vacant seat and, without speaking, creates a sense of family with the black man. Another gripping portion deals with the calamity of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, noting the media images showing victims who were overwhelmingly poor and overwhelmingly black, and the sense of abandonment felt by the community.

Sometimes a single narrator speaks, sometimes there are multiple speakers overlapping, at times fraught and at other times finding a calm center in the storm. There is material from black comedian Hennessy Youngman's work "How to Be a Successful Black Artist," barriers to equal employment opportunity in spite of the law, the mass incarceration of black men, a yoga class intended to diffuse the strain brought by racism, images of Emmet Till, and unthinking racism as when a job applicant who, after a very positive phone screening, shows up for his interview and is greeted by the white hiring manager's impulsive "I didn't know you were black!" A recitation of the names of twenty-two black men and women killed by police, or in police custody over the past few years, framed by Rankine's statement "because white men can't police their imaginations, black men are dying."

All this and more is compressed into 75 searing minutes. Director Wendy Knox's seamless transitions, quick pacing, and clarity around the themes and insights make it impossible to look away. Michael Wangen's lighting and the soundscape created by Michael Croswell—music, the sounds of a storm, of a crowd, of a car door slamming—all fit perfectly together to create a riveting experience.

The actors each take on multiple roles, bringing great depth and heart to their performances. The black cast members—Hope Cervantes, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson—present a wide array of circumstances, shifting invisibly from one persona to another, at one moment ready to implode with anger, the next, stilled by the depth of their sadness. Their purpose at no time seems to blame or stigmatize, but simply to illustrate what it means to be African-American at this time in these United States. White cast members Heather Bunch and Michael Hanna often depict racist behavior or language, to some degree acting as foils for the other cast members to respond to. All six cast members show commendable courage and fortitude in taking on these difficult roles and speaking these heartwrenching words.

Citizen: An American Lyric dispels any credence given to the notion that ours is a post-racial society. If not a biological fact, race continues to be a fact of life for our nation—easier to overlook for those who benefit from their status, impossible to ignore for those laden with the burdens of theirs. Wendy Frank and her extraordinary ensemble and creative team have given us a superb mounting of Claudia Rankine and Stephen Sachs' electrifying work. Its greatness lies not in proffering solutions to problems, but in revealing harsh truths, which must be the starting place for any authentic change.

Citizen: An American Lyric continues through April 2, 2017, at Intermedia Arts, 2822 S. Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $25.00, $22.00 for seniors and students with ID. For tickets call 612-724-3760 or go to franktheatre.org.

Written by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs; Director: Wendy Knox; Projection Design: Bill Cottman; Costumes: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Michael Croswell; Stage Manager: Jared Ziegler

Cast: Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson.


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