July 30, 2015

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen marches to the stage


Citizen, cast

(Image via Graywolf Press)

 If winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and being a finalist for the very same award for criticism didn’t convince you that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was as much 2014’s book of the year as a form-smashing modern classic, then let Stephen Sachs’s dramatic adaptation of last year’s multidisciplinary ethos of poetry, photography, and searing political commentary turn you the right way.

Co-founding and creatively developing Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre into one of LA’s most notable theatre companies, Stephen Sachs had already been looking for a way to work with the public outrage surrounding Michael Brown’s shooting at the hands of law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri before Rankine’s opus even hit bookstores. In an interview with Graywolf Press, publishers of Citizen, Sachs discussed just what appealed to him about the book and how he worked to transform it for the world of stage.

“My stage adaptation of Citizen is not a play,” Sachs admitted. Wanting to stay true to Rankine’s avoidance of a coherently straightforward narrative, Sachs laid out the framework he followed for his adaptation:

It’s a collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes, and streams of consciousness that blend poetry, prose, movement, sound, music, and video images. An ensemble of six actors. Each is both a single citizen, and all citizens, interweaving. No conventional linear story, yet a powerful emotional arc. Fast-moving. Stylized. Theatre at the speed of thought.

As a playwright who has written stage adaptation for literary works as disparate as Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Sachs particularly strove to capture the intricacies of Rankine’s lyrical language: “Claudia’s language is evocative, intelligent, rhythmic. It is meant to be read, to be seen on the page and savored.”

“Every word in the script comes from Claudia’s book,” he added. 

Tina Lifford, who has recently appeared in supporting roles on Scandal and Parenthood, is one of the six actors and actresses Sachs called upon for the Fountain Theatre’s production of Citizen. Relaying her experience during rehearsals for Huffington Post, Lifford discussed how director Shirley Jo Finney (three-time winner of the NAACP’s Theatre Award for Best Director) made discussing the current state of race relations a priority for all involved: “Everyone at the table knew we were signing on to dig into our own racist conditioning,” she said.

Lifford notes how these conversations soon became particularly heated between the four black and two white members of the cast:

I saw the white female cast member, Lisa Pescia, take a deep breath before saying, “I’m from the South, so yes, color is the first thing I see. I don’t believe people when they say they don’t see color. When I meet you, I see if you are black or Jewish or Asian. How can you not?”

Later, in the parking lot, Lisa told me that her heart was racing when she shared. She worried that telling the truth in the company of her black cast mates was politically incorrect.

For Lifford, Sach’s production of Citizen, as much as the book itself, is about exposing the day-to-day nature of racism in America and exploring how these small interactions work to teach social values that become codified into how we see the world. And, more importantly, how those values can be changed.

The Fountain Theatre’s production of Citizen opens August 1st and runs through October 14th with four showtimes a week. 

For ticketing information visit the Fountain Theatre website.