In its quintessence, theatre is the bonding of poetry and dance.
That is oft forgotten in this age of directors as practitioners of non-linear deconstructionism and playwrights enamored of mono- syllabic dialogue. But neglected does not render it any the less true.
Citizen: An American Lyric validates and testifies to the potency of that bonding.
The Fountain Theatre has a record of producing works linguistically challenging and stylistically adventurous, so the idea of the theatre taking an award winning volume of contemporary poetry and adapting it as a stage production should not cause any hesitation or doubts about attending because it’s a show that should be seen.
Actually, it’s a show that shouldn’t be missed.
The progression of Citizen from book to stage is the tale of a trinity of talent, a chain forged of creativity concluding in the person of its director, Shirley Jo Finney.
Ms. Finney has won herself acclaim with such past efforts as Yellowman and The Brothers Size, both of which appeared on the Fountain stage.
These were bold high risk undertakings for any director, and it was the level of her achievements in each that provided two solid testaments to her gifts. With Citizen she adds a third.
Sharing the laurels of this production equally with Ms. Finney is the Fountain’s Co-artistic Director and the book’s adaptor Stephen Sachs.
Sachs is a playwright of solid skill, which here, burnished the effort and personal vision that brought to the Fountain Ms. Rankine’s poetic investigation of this country’s racial discord.
It is a subject some of us would like to ignore, or perhaps treat as a closed chapter in our country’s history pointing to the Obama presidency as proof of that.
But sadly that optimistic verdict finds itself being overturned on network news almost nightly. It begins with the report of the lead story, a news item, one that sadly is not new. Different places, different names, details always varied.
But for the differences they are the same story retold, one that has become a damning echo. Encounters with law enforcement professionals that end with a husband, a son, brother or father dead as the price of a skin’s tint.
Sachs tells us he had been seeking for “a project that would add the Fountain Theatre’s voice to the national conversation about race in America.”
He found it in poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Pen Open Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
However, for all the honors it may garner, a book of poems is, in the end, a book. Poetry may be jarringly dramatic, but drama, it ain’t.
It was Sachs’ deft and intelligent “shapeshifting” that fashioned from the book a script of choral conflicts and arcs for six actors. Then, with an adroit application of music and AV, it was Ms. Finney, using gossamer thread, who wove theatre.
Exceptional theatre at that.
Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Lisa Pescia and Simone Missick are the performers and they too are exceptional, approaching the poetry as parts placed within chiseled arenas of conflict drawn from Ms. Rankine’s impressionist canvas of colliding incidents, insults and injustices.
The play, like the book, does not confine itself just to the plague of police shootings. Ms. Rankine turns her probing eye in all directions: Katrina, the tennis courts of the U.S. Open, Rodney King, the broadcasts of Don Imus, the Hackney Riots, and even to the insensitivity incurred in her childhood from simple daily interaction.
Her volume contains assorted photos that find their way on stage as well.
One is of tennis player Dane Caroline Wozniacki with towels bunched and stuffed beneath her tank top and shorts in playful parody of Serena Williams.
The phrase “stream of consciousness” has been applied to describe Ms. Rankine’s writing. Rather, it seems to me, free-flowing like an untended wound bleeding out. The poet uses history, incorporates the words of others; Hennessy Youngman, Piers Morgan, James Baldwin. Her own language is sparse but never unfilled: “The destination is illusory.”
Four words that express what:
A lie exposed?
An unmet promise?
Recognition of humanity’s capacity for hope?
Adoration for the species’ tenacity of spirit?
A eulogy for a dream dead?
Certain names are employed by the poet, names that reflect the sins of the American people; Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown…. There are more. Far too many more.
Citizen: An American Lyric handily succeeds as theatre, and in Sachs’ hopes for adding “the Fountain Theatre’s voice to the national conversation about race in America.”
Ms. Rankine’s work strikes me as comparable to another great epic poem, Homer’s Odyssey. Both gave voice to the follies and dreams of a people. Both speak of long and perilous journeys with a common destination.
After the fall of Troy, Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic, struggles against all but insurmountable obstacles in his effort to return to Ithaca. In the end he triumphs over malevolent gods, terrifying monsters, the treacherous sea. It takes him ten years, but at last he is home.
The American odyssey has gone on for over two hundred years and still we have not come “home.” We battle against our malevolent gods found in the halls of power. They do not throw lightning bolts. They cut budgets of programs designed to sustain the most vulnerable and gut laws meant to assure that their voices would be heard.
Some times our monsters carry badges, some times they’re given a radio show with Clear Channel Communications. And some times, though we may not know it, the monster can be found in our own hearts.
The sea we journey on dwarfs that of Odysseus.
For the swells and billows we pitch upon is that “vast deep” of our history, and it seems we are condemned to forever be sailing against the wind.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If this nation is destined to fail, then carve that into the gravestone for our epitaph.
Ms. Rankine knows the danger we face. “The past,” she writes, “is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.”
Hope remains that we may yet navigate “the waters dark and deep” upon which we ride, that hope exists only if we confront the monsters and deny the gods of our past.
What is unique to live theatre is its ability to serve its community with an immediacy and verve no other media has the capacity to do.
Some theatres take on this responsibility.
The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, when living up to its name, does.
The 24th Street Theatre is presently the Gold Standard in practicing this.
The Fountain has always been one of the jewels in L.A.’s crown. With this show however, she provides a great service to the city, and a greater opportunity to its citizens. And again, it is one that should not be missed.
Steven Sachs’ and Ms. Finney’s staging of Citizen: An American Lyric offers a true sounding of the depths of America’s race issue, and within the poetry of Ms. Rankine lies our North Star.
♦ ♦ ♦
CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC
by Claudia Rankine
adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs
directed by Shirley Jo Finney
produced by Simon Levy
Contact the Box Office for more information: (323) 663-1525
or Click Here: The Fountain Theatre
See it now at The Fountain Theatre – 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029
Monday-Wednesday 11 – 6pm
Thursday-Saturday 11 – 9pm
Sunday 11 – 5pm