Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Citizen: An American Lyric
Fountain Theatre

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, and Leith Burke
Most audience members, I think, experience mixed emotions at the end of Citizen: An American Lyric, the theatrical adaptation of Claudia Rankine's acclaimed book of poetry in a world premiere production at the Fountain Theatre. On one hand, there's that warm, pleasant feeling of having seen an exceptional production of a powerful work. On the other, there's that sinking feeling that we, as a nation, are so phenomenally far away from the "post-racial" society that some glibly assert Obama's election heralded that we might as well just give up, because the problems of race in America are truly intractable. Or, as the woman next to me put it as we were leaving the theatre, "What do we do now?"

The show isn't so much a play as a series of theatrical moments: vignettes, stream-of-consciousness poetry, and bits of memories that can't be forgotten. Adaptor Stephen Sachs states that every word in the production is Rankine's, and Rankine's words are stunningly evocative. When one of her characters speaks of self-recrimination for staying silent in the face of racism, the poetry of disgust is eloquent, even as it calls to mind familiar unpleasant feelings.

The work touches on many different types of racist acts or statements—some of them so obviously improper in civilized society that the audience gasps (a white woman jokingly calls her black friend "a nappy-headed ho"), but the production is at its best when it takes a cold, hard look at more subtle, possibly even subconscious, acts of racism. Anyone who watches "What Would You Do?" knows it is wrong when a salesperson refuses to assist a black customer or assumes the black customer can't afford expensive goods. But what about when the black customer's white friend fails to say something when the salesperson asks the customer if he thinks his credit card will work? And what about when a white father and daughter get on an airplane, see a black man in the window seat of their three-seat row, and the father immediately wedges himself into the center seat, implicitly "protecting" his daughter from the black man, and tacitly teaching her that black men are something to be afraid of? Citizen invites its audience to see individual acts through the prism of a lifetime of racism, and glimpse the soul-crushing pain that they cause.

It isn't any one individual's lifetime experience of racism that matters to Citizen, but our country's history of white/black racism. Surely, it began with slavery. But Citizen also addresses the government's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, and the series of deaths at law enforcement hands which led to the "Black Lives Matter" call for justice. All of this, Citizen suggests, creates baggage that informs pretty much any white/black interaction.

Whether you agree or not with Rankine's portrait of the black experience in America (I hope it isn't true, but fear that it may be), what should matter is that Citizen is good theatre. It's solidly in the Fountain's wheelhouse—an ensemble piece that floats between dream and reality, narration and performance, and challenges its audience's perceptions about a potentially incendiary topic. It is adapted by Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney—both of whom have hit it out of the park at the Fountain in the past. The actors are strong and effective (although the company is an ensemble, Tina Lifford stands out with her understated yet impassioned delivery of a monologue about taking a seat on a train) and the tech elements (especially Yee Eun Nam's video design) add to the experience.

There's a point, maybe ten minutes before the end of the show, where you expect it to end, ready to applaud through tears. And, truthfully, I was initially going to criticize Sachs for not ending the piece at that point. But, in retrospect, it is the last few minutes of the play that actually made the strongest impact. Sachs chose not to go for the easy ending for his audience, but the more difficult one—letting the audience weep for the victims of racial injustice is giving them an out. Instead, we leave with our country's racist wounds raw and exposed, with black and white both wondering, "What do we do now?"

Citizen: An American Lyric runs at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through September 14, 2015. For tickets and information, see

The Fountain Theatre - Producing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor; Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs; Producing Director Simon Levy - presents the world premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs. Set/video design Yee Eun Nam; Lighting design Pablo Santiago; Costume design Naila Aladdin-Sanders; Movement Anastasia Coon; Composer/sound design Peter Bayne; Prop design Dillon Nelson. Production stage manager Shawna Voragen; Assistant stage manager Terri Roberts; Technical director Scott Tuomey; Publicist Lucy Pollak. Produced by Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney.

Cast: Bernard K. Addison; Leith Burke; Tina Lifford; Tony Maggio; Simone Missick; and Lisa Pescia.

Photo: Ed Krieger

- Sharon Perlmutter

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