In 2014, Graywolf Press published Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A blend of poetry, lyric essays, social criticism, and images, this groundbreaking book focuses on race relations in America – especially microaggressions and repeated racist incidents. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve encountered. As I read it for my MFA program this semester, I was elated to see that Frank Theatre was performing an adaptation of the book. Having seen it both opening night and at a Sunday matinee with a talk-back, I’m still struck by it.
A story like this only grows more important as the days continue. If you’re mesmerized by the film Get Out and still are emotionally recovering from We Are Proud to Present in the Dowling Studio, then Citizen should be your next thing to watch. Using a collaborative ensemble featuring Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson, this performance splits Rankine’s narrator – who frequently uses the second tense to tell their accounts – into several voices encountering racism that often goes overlooked. Recounting illness cased by dealing with racism every day, a white colleague confusing one African American person for another, a neighbor who calls the cops because a friend who is staying next door is making a phone call from the driveway and he looks suspicious, Rankine’s book does not back away from showing the sheer multitudes of microaggressions and subtle racism that occur daily and the ensemble does a masterful job of portraying them. The poetry in the original work is profound and to hear it pour of the tongues of these incredible actors will wrench at your gut, overwhelm you emotionally, and haunt your mind.
If you haven’t read the book, you won’t have a problem following the story, but for those who have read Rankine’s work, the way that media is brought alive is particularly gut-wrenching. From footage of Serena William’s tennis matches to photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the subjects captured on the page are put in front of our eyes, making it impossible to ignore the argument being made.
Of course, reading a book is far different from watching a show and some of the intimacy of Rankine’s work is lost. But theater asks us to share an experience with our neighbors, making for an added level of complexity for how to negotiate space with a show like this. Theater audiences tend to be mostly white in Minnesota and, undoubtably, this is an important show for Minnesotans, especially white liberal Minnesotans, to see. But you can’t always gage where a theater audience is at or where a show registers for them. At the post-show talk-back on Sunday, which included Shannon Gibney and Peter Rachleff as panelists, I was struck by white audience members who were afraid of making microaggressions and announced their discomfort, drawing parallels from the show to reconstruction after the Civil War rather than present day, and pinpointing Trump as an exceptionally racist president, rather than a more vocal on whose precedent was set long ago. Hearing comments that seemed out of touch from what I saw staged concerns me, not that the show isn’t working and isn’t presenting its message clearly, but that audience members have more work to do than I thought. I’m going to step out of reviewer mode for a moment and talk as a community engagement and advocate. I believe that we should have conversations about theater, especially after shows like this. But it concerns me when certain things continually occur during talk-backs – a white male always speaks first; people of color are sharing real, recent instances where certain events are have happened while white people feel the need to discuss their discomfort or show that their only context for these events was in the past or in the South; and African-American panelists and audience members having to do all the work and all the teaching to make white audience members understand. Talk-back should be learning moments but, as it came up in this talk back, here and in our day to day lives, white allies need to do more to jump in, advocate, and explain. As the conversation became uncomfortably focused on white discomfort, I wondered what I, what we, as audience members, panelists, and human beings in general can do to be better allies? How can we help guide talk-backs to keep them from going in outrageous directions? What can we do to correct behavior or explain why a certain comment is given at the wrong time or in the wrong space – and not just in the theater in but in our everyday lives?
Needless to say, this show has given me a lot of food for thought. I cannot stress the importance of the show enough or the brilliance that is Rankine’s work. Read it, see it, and talk about it. And keep talking about it. And don’t stop talking or working or fighting racism in America.
Citizen is adapted by Stephen Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s book. It is directed by Wendy Knox and is playing at Intermedia Arts now through April 2nd. Tickets are available on Frank Theatre’s website.